The coronavirus pandemic means we’re all having to adjust to extreme amounts of change right now. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t panic – it’s all part of the process, as an expert explains below.
How are you feeling right now?
If you’re anything like us, your emotions will be all over the place. We are living through an unprecedented global crisis, with the coronavirus pandemic quite literally putting a halt to our normal lives and forcing us to adapt to a whole new world – one of staggering death tolls, a lack of security and almost complete isolation. We’re worried about our loved ones, our health, our financial security, and pretty much every area of our lives.
No one knows when lockdown will end, let alone the threat of the virus itself. The only thing guaranteed is that we’re in this situation for the long-haul, so trying to adapt to some of the changes as best we can is crucial for protecting our mental health.
This is where the change curve comes in. It’s a psychological model that predicts the way we adapt to a huge change in our lives, and knowing where we currently sit on the curve can help us pick apart and understand some of the emotions and feelings we’re all tackling right now.
“The change model is built off of the bones of the ‘five stages of grief’ model,” explains psychologist Hope Bastine. “The model was initially designed for people who are going through the process of their lives ending, probably prematurely, hence ‘acceptance’ being the final stage,” she adds.
The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In comparison, the change model has seven stages – shock, denial, anger and blame, bargaining and self-blame, depression and confusion, acceptance and finally, problem solving.
“The change model considers how we might accept a life changing experience and then learn and grow from it,” Bastine says. “As human beings, we must adapt to change. We have to be taken to the edge of our comfort zone in order to grow.
“The experience of the coronavirus pandemic is a major trauma to society as we know it. Going forward, we must heal that trauma and come out of the ashes as enhanced human beings.”
Below, Bastine explains in detail what each stage of the change model involves. Read on to figure out which stage you might currently be at, and how this could help you during this time of uncertainty.
The first stage, shock, is often a numbness, during which we’re likely to feel nothing. A seismic change has shattered our existing worldview, so we have no template from which to move forwards. During this stage, we struggle to rationalise what is going on.
Denial is often experienced as feelings such as “this isn’t happening”, “this is a trick”, or “this is a mistake”. Essentially, people are unable to accept the situation – it is a defence mechanism that many of us use in order to cope with difficult information.
Some people can become stuck in this stage for very long periods of time. They might be resistant to change – as human beings, we do struggle with change, but the paradox is that we need it in order to grow and thrive and innovate.
Anger and blame
In starting to come to terms with this shift in their lives, people move into a stage of anger and blame – in other words, fault-finding.
We’ve certainly seen this during the coronavirus pandemic – everyone and everything has been blamed for the crisis, from the government to the World Health Organisation. Essentially, we’re trying to make sense of the new world we’re in, and understand how to move through it.
Anger is a very powerful emotion that is often indicative of an underlying emotion – usually a feeling of vulnerability or a loss of control. And indeed, that is what has happened with the pandemic – our world is no longer under our control.
Bargaining and self-blame
Other emotions that could arise along with anger are a fear of loneliness, a feeling of being overwhelmed, a sense of helplessness, and outrage over the injustice of the situation. This stage has also manifested in the conspiracy theories that we have seen emerging recently, as people try to come up with logical reasons for why the situation is happening. Again, conspiracy theories are simply defence mechanisms that move us away from actually coming to terms with change, while also relinquishing any control that we might possibly have over our lives and our immediate surroundings.
It is this feeling of not being in control, and the sense of pointlessness, that shift us into the next stage of the curve.
Depression and confusion
Depression and confusion are periods where people oscillate between the first two stages and this stage. With every high, there is a low, and as we use anger as an elevation for our mood, our body has to come down from it eventually. That’s when we move towards depression.
Depression is also characterised by anxiety and confusion, which are literally two desires that pull us in opposite directions. For example, we could have the desire for our world to remain the same as it was, pulling against our desire to inherently come to terms with the new life we are living – because frankly, the change is here and we need to adapt.
But depression also has an adaptive mechanism; it causes us to bed down and reflect, to quietly evaluate and assess, in order to heal and restore. If we don’t have a healthy coping mechanism built within us (usually through learned behaviour from our parents) then we can get stuck in this stage for quite some time and might need to seek help from a professional to iron out the kinks in our strategies for making progress and moving forward.
If we work through the previous stages, especially the anger and depression, we can move towards a place of acceptance, and find a way to come to terms with our new life. However, it is important to note that this is not a clear linear path, but rather a process that we often oscillate between. Acceptance is one of the hardest places to come to and indeed those from Buddhist philosophy and the mindfulness movement teach us that reaching acceptance is a life-long process.
However, we must adapt, so if we get stuck in acceptance for too long it becomes complacency, despondency, or despair, because we must innovate.
The seventh stage is all about growth, and learning to live a more authentic life. Growth is not a final stage per se, but more of an ever-evolving process. We use the change, and the crisis, as a vehicle for self-transcendence.
We move back and forth rapidly between these stages as we try to find a new way of living. As we problem solve, we assimilate or integrate this new idea into our lives. Thus it’s a form of experimenting – we are testing out our new theory and strategy, which we then re-evaluate to asses and tweak the plan and try again.
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