Our Mental Health Compass … Surviving the Pandemic and Learning to Thrive Again

By Ijeoma Ijeaku, MD, MPH, FAPA Nov 09, 2022

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Throughout the ages, humans have dealt with periods of uncertainty.

Throughout the ages, humans have dealt with periods of uncertainty. When uncertainties arise, the ability to cope is necessary for survival. The term “survival of the fittest,” although originally applied in Darwinian theory to refer to natural selection and reproductive success, is defined by “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary” as the natural process by which organisms best adjusted to their environment are most successful in surviving and reproducing. For me, as a psychiatrist, the most important part of that definition is “best adjusted.” Thus, by extrapolation, survival of the fittest applies to the ability to survive when our environment presents situations that task us, and survival depends on our ability to adapt effectively to these situations.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The order to stay home gave rise to various levels of anxiety about the nature of the virus, including its transmission pattern, associated symptoms and fatality rates. Many individuals cleared out shelves at grocery stores, buying both essential and nonessential commodities. The possession of plenty of toilet paper became the main indication of disaster preparedness!

During the pandemic and its aftermath, the unpredictability of the times is our new reality. As we deal with various consequences of the pandemic, our sense of well-being is continually challenged. Even as we re-enter society, the fear of surges as well as the drain (physical, mental, emotional, financial, etc.) we have experienced are ongoing issues. New trends have emerged, such as an increase in mental health disorders across the life span as well as increases in drug overdoses and homicide rates. As we transition to a constantly changing new normal, we may feel that our compass has shifted, that we are not sure which direction we should go. Learning from others who have succeeded in similar situations and emulating the values that have guided them to success will give us a good chance of not only surviving but also learning to thrive. In other words, we groom ourselves for survival so that we can become one of the fittest. I like to think that the fittest among us are those individuals with the emotional competence associated with their EI.

Emotional Intelligence

The dictionary defines emotional intelligence quotient (EIQ) as “the ability to understand the way people feel and react and to use this skill to make good judgments and to avoid or solve problems.” A 2018 article in Psych Central opines that EI is more important than (usual) intelligence (IQ) to attain success in our personal and professional lives. Emotionally intelligent people:

  • Are aware we are in a once-in-a-lifetime situation.
  • Understand that we must stay positive.
  • Focus on what is important.
  • Learn what is known about a situation but still embrace what is unknown about it.
  • Are not preoccupied by their problems, yet they have contingency plans for undesirable outcomes.
  • Know when to trust their instincts, yet they also recognize their limitations.

The uncertainties we have all faced have taught or reminded us that change is inevitable, but we are essentially malleable. We have the ability to challenge the status quo and embrace opportunities and new ways of life. Ask yourself, “Who am I?” “What do I want?” “What will I make of this period of my life?” “Why am I reading this article at this point?” “Will I align myself with my purpose and work out the details?”

What can I do to thrive?

For nurses (who care for the sickest and most vulnerable patients and sometimes deal with tragedies), it is important to:

  • Stay open to continuing to learn about the virus as well as ways the pandemic has forever changed our lives.
  • Stay attuned to the changes that are constantly occurring.
  • Be prepared to adapt to changes as new discoveries are made.
  • Stay resolute in the belief that there is light at the end of the tunnel, for life is meaningless without hope.
  • Spend time with loved ones and rely on support systems to stay connected. Social media and other means of communication make it easier to keep in touch and spend quality time with others even when there is physical distance. Staying connected to others boosts various aspects of our lives including our immune system, which is a critical piece of being one of the fittest.
  • Stay active. Moderate to vigorous exercise is necessary for fitness and boosts immunity. The Department of Health and Human Services’ “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans” offers recommendations.
  • Create meaning and purpose in your life. Research shows that individuals with faith tend to have better outcomes in various areas of health.
  • Take prescribed medications regularly for pre-existing medical conditions.
  • Follow up with routine health maintenance measures.
  • Eat healthy foods and drink enough water.
  • Get optimal sleep.
  • Continue to practice safety measures such as frequent handwashing, using appropriate and adequate personal protection equipment, and maintaining safe distances as needed.
  • Practice empathy toward yourself using self-compassion techniques as a reminder that you are not superhuman.
  • Be prepared for potential issues with moral injury. Moral injury, which can often occur in critical care, is characterized by difficulties in functioning that sometimes emerge following exposure to potentially morally injurious events (PMIEs). Moral injury results from engagement in actions/non-actions that violate your moral code or values. Self-compassion techniques and self-care tips help critical care providers handle these issues.

In addition to these self-care tips, we need to attend to our emotions and bodies every day, even as we tend to the critical needs of our patients. In addition, AACN offers resources to help you consider your well-being. Practicing these techniques (even when we feel like doing them might slow us down) is essential because, at the end of the day, we cannot give what we do not have.

If we use the above principles to help us thrive, we will improve our well-being (a great predictor of health-related quality of life) and improve our EIQ, which is the hallmark of being among the fittest. While we cannot predict the future, we will be in a strong position to take on whatever comes next.

So, ask yourself, “How can I improve my well-being?” “How can I add to my EIQ score?” “How can I become one of the fittest, so I can improve my ability to handle stressors while striving toward the best version of myself?”

If you are struggling with your mental health, or know someone who is, please seek help from a licensed mental health personnel or call 988, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.