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Coping in Hard Times

These are hard times. 2020 is working on becoming the defining year for life stress. The coronavirus is ominous, hiding around most every corner, and affecting almost every area of life as we knew it. The economy has declined under the strain of the virus to the point that many fear years of economic hardship and slow recovery.  Many have lost jobs, health insurance, homes, retirement funds, and even their lives.  There are scares that the climate and the environment are reaching a breaking point and that human life is being threatened by toxins, storms, temperatures, and diminished quality of soil for food production. Nearly everyone is anxious, and many are suffering new levels of anxiety and depression, wondering if they can survive these troubling times. Socially, there is an added layer of stress from the polarization and oversimplification of our challenges: us vs. them, simple vs complicated; no big deal vs. the end is near, the problem is the other side.

If the news sells when it is frightening and negative, this is its heyday.

In the midst of stress, the coping strategies of individuals and communities become evident as everyone begins grasping for ways to recalibrate and find some sense of stability. Some of the more common forms of coping are described here. Consider where you see yourself in each of these.

Common Ways We Cope

1. EXTERNALIZING: Throughout history and all around the world, fear has led leaders and their followers to look for someone to blame for their problems so they can regain some sense of control over the threat. The threat of our many problems has increased the polarization among us.  People attack each other as representatives of the problem, the wrong ideas, the wrong motives, and a real and serious threat to our well-being.  If we can defeat “them” and push “them” back, we will regain control over our problems. The seriousness of our fears increases the money and compliance we offer to the voices telling us where the fault lies.  We become vulnerable to misdirection from others. Authoritarian systems of government, faith, and social rules can sweep people away from their normal, balanced ways of living.

2. INTERNALIZING: Fear can trick us into feeling we are helpless, powerless, or mere pawns in the hands of fate.  Then we fall into anxiety, depression, pessimistic assumptions, and hopelessness.  We lock up, tense up and sub ventilate (habitual shallow breathing).  Physical symptoms and diseases become more common as we tense up and shut down our bodies in an attempt to create feelings of safety.

3. AVOIDING: The “Roaring Twenties”, which occurred after World War I and the Spanish Flu Influenza, were seen as both celebration and escapism from the terrible fears and misery of the hardships endured.  This is still true that people are often tempted in hard times to “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”  Distractions, addictions and depression result as many just cannot face the challenges of their lives.

These first 3 strategies are the direction that people tend to naturally drift unless they make an intentional decision to seek growth through this 4th strategy:

4. INTEGRATING: Much has been written in recent years about resilience, or the ability to face our fears and difficulties, to grow in strength and maturity, and to concentrate on our core values, resolving to make the best we can of difficult situations.  In very troubled times, not only is there an increase in chaos and conflicts, but we also have an increase in the reassuring steadiness of people and organizations of love, principles, and resilience, who help the rest of us and show us the way to living patiently with our situation.  They show us that a vision for steady coping will get us to the other side of our problems.

Finding Our Way

Fr. Richard Rohr (The Center for Action and Contemplation Meditations, August, 2020) refers to a cycle of Order-Disorder-Reorder in life.  He says we all want a life of “Order”, without discomforting challenges, but life throws challenges at us that throw us off balance and create “Disorder.”  This is good for us, he says, because it drives us to reach deeper and think more broadly in order to create “Reorder.”  He asserts that life has to knock us out of the “driver’s seat” to allow us to trust more fully in the essential goodness and safety of life, and to figure out what works and what does not work.

For over 50 years, I have worked with survivors of abuse and trauma who have experienced this cycle of Order-Disorder-Reorder on a large scale. As they fight to listen to their fears and symptoms, to figure out what their symptoms are trying to tell them, they find new understandings of themselves, their pasts and their paths to the future. They demonstrate the capacity for increased resilience in the reordering, not despite their trauma but flowing from it.

On display on our coffee table for years we have had a lovely picture book of beautiful stories of family happiness during The Great Depression. It is titled: We Had Everything but Money, by Deb Mulvey. In these scary times let’s all strive to “have everything” except the things we cannot control outside of us.  Let’s be resilient, loving, and strong, so with time and effort we can ride out this storm and take care of each other along the way.

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Clark Barshinger, Ph.D.

Practicing clinical psychology for over 50 years, Dr. Clark Barshinger has broad and deep experience counseling patients. His graduate education includes a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Northwestern University and a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from DePaul University, and Master’s Degree of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary. He works mostly with adults, teens and couples.

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