Imagine you are an athlete who has suffered a debilitating injury. After the initial shock, disappointment and worry about what happens next, you lock in on a recovery plan. You commit yourself to strictly follow the rehab program laid out before you. After a time, you start to see progress. Your spirits lift as you envision your return to the sporting lifestyle you love. Your step quickens. You start pushing it maybe more than you should as this vision of full recovery comes closer to obtainable. Then you take a tumble. Your injury now much worse than before, it feels like more than you can overcome. You feel like you may now never get back the life you knew. Depression sets in.
David Rock is the co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute, a cognitive science consultancy institution that advises many Fortune 100 companies. He is also an avid runner. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he uses some similar sports imagery to describe the three-step process of shock and psychological trauma caused by a pandemic we thought would long be over by now — and then came delta, and now omicron and who knows what next.
He describes phase one of the process as the initial shock, which causes a spike in adrenaline, our body’s way of stopping us from feeling pain so we can get out of danger. Rock describes us as now being in phase two. “The pain stage started around April 2020, once we realized the pandemic wasn’t going to be over in a month or two … It’s when the shock subsides and the pain kicks in that things really start to be problematic.”
Phase three — rehabilitation, getting our life back — is of course what we all seek. But it can set us up for a fall when the virus rears up, causing a holdup to our plans. As Rock describes it, “The closer you get to the vision of full rehabilitation, the more likely you are to rush and have another setback. This is because we tend to pick up the pace the closer we get to completing something. Seeing a finish line makes us run faster in every way, as well as feel more desperate for the end.”
Says Rock, “This prolonged period of psychic pain came from three deep psychological needs not being met.” Our needs for certainty, control and connectedness. The psychological need for control, or autonomy, “has plummeted with every new confusing piece of information about the virus … The absence of reliable patterns means it literally hurts when we’re not able to think more than a few days ahead.”
“Which brings us to our current stage — rehabilitation, which can be the most painful of all.” He stresses that the most important takeaway in the rehab stage is to have patience. It “will take however long it will take.” Rock believes that incremental progress is key to recovery and that the most important takeaway in the rehab stage is to have patience.
It doesn’t take a neurologist to see that, at this moment, patience is one thing in short supply in this country. We also must wonder what the cumulative effects of moving into year three of more disappointments, financial and other hardships, and escalating illness and death are having on us. We are the walking wounded looking to cope, subjected to many unwanted emotions, including anger, alienation and even aggression, while stuck in place.
It is like the stories we are reading today could well have been written last year. And tomorrow can’t be expected to be all that different than the day before it. No wonder the movie “Groundhog Day” has taken on new meaning and popularity.
“Welcome to life on auto-repeat,” says CNN reporter David G. Allan, “where we take you back to this question the film ‘Groundhog Day’ poses: ‘What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?'” Allen believes the film’s renewed popularity stems from the fact that it is
“a useful shorthand description of our new normal.”
“It’s easy in times of recovery and isolation to become so introspective that we forget others are struggling with recovery, too,” concluded Rock. “Research shows that compassion doesn’t just help us be patient with ourselves; it also increases our ability to be patient with others who may also be struggling.”
A December Harvard Business Review article stresses the importance for business leaders today connecting with employees with empathy but leading with compassion — the important factor being that compassion is an intention versus an emotion.
High on the list of those struggling who could use some compassion now more than ever are the nation’s frontline medical workers. This is especially true for those toiling in the small, nonprofit safety-net hospitals in the Deep South. As recently reported by health and science reporter Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times, they “were running on fumes even before the arrival of Omicron. Successive waves of illness and death have left them exhausted and numb; nearly one in five have left the profession over the past two years. And they are angry.”
In his “day-in-a-life” report on nurses at Mississippi’s Pascagoula Hospital, the city’s only acute-care health facility, “a wave of departures has left 80 unfilled openings for registered nurses, forcing administrators to mothball a third of its beds. (Soon), every remaining bed was full,” he writes.
“When asked how they are holding up two years into the pandemic, nearly every nurse at Pascagoula Hospital grew emotional,” says Jacobs. “Caroline Olivera, 24, a self-described ‘baby nurse’ who landed her first nursing job when the pandemic began, cried as she described the physical exhaustion from endless overtime shifts and the emotional toll of so much death.”
“Yes, this is what we signed up for, but people forget that we’re still human and we have emotions,” says Bobbie Anne Sison, the nurse manager. “You try to check it at the door when you go home, but you can’t.”
Says Tim Moore, president of the Mississippi Hospital Association, “A lot of community hospitals are wondering how they’re going to keep the lights on.”