(RNS) — Robert J. Wicks, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Loyola University Maryland, is an expert on resilience, self-care and the prevention of secondary stress — the pressures we experience when reaching out to others. His book "Perspective: The Calm within the Storm" addresses how both first-responders and the general public can deal with these topics. As the COVID-19 crisis strains our ability to overcome anxiety and grief, we reached out to Wicks for some much-needed context.
This email interview with Wicks has been edited for clarity and length.
The uncertainty of this pandemic is medical, economic and emotional. What do you mean by perspective and how do we keep it?
A healthy perspective is a portal to resilience. That is, it helps us avoid unnecessary suffering and enables us to better embrace the joy and support around us. It does this by alerting us to pick up our emotions so we can stop, reflect and review our thinking, which can become distorted in a crisis. For example, we can react in extreme ways. Some panic, others fall into a sense of minimization and denial, still others project the blame onto some thing or person or foreign nation in order to maintain a distance from the reality that exists.
You frequently cite religious thinkers in your work. What does religion have to say about keeping perspective?
Buddhists speak about it as the “unobstructed vision” and Hindus, in the Upanishads, as a “turning around in one’s seat of consciousness.” In the Talmud, Wisdom figures teach us that we do not see things as they are … we see things as we are. The Gospel of Matthew says, “If your eye is good, your whole body will be good.” So long before psychologists valued perspective, religion leaders did.
We even sense it behind comments of religious teachers through the ages. The prophet Mohammed is purported to have said at one point: “If you have enough money to buy two loaves of bread, buy only one loaf … and spend the rest on flowers.” In today’s environment, we might add if you have the money to buy the one that you need, then leave the other for someone else in need.
Does keeping perspective risk blocking out what’s really going on?
A healthy perspective doesn’t deny the tough times in life. It faces them directly with the understanding that it is not the amount of darkness in the world or even in ourselves that matters, it is how we stand in that darkness that is crucial. And so, it is worth the effort to enhance a healthy perspective by taking a few simple but significant steps.
These include picking up your negative emotions and taking a few moments to review the thoughts and beliefs that are producing them so you can see when your thinking is exaggerated or distorted so it is possible to replace them with more accurate cognition — ways of thinking, perceiving and understanding.
How do we cope with the grief the outbreak has caused, especially when we consume so much of it through the media?
A physician at Walter Reed Army Hospital once told me that I had helped him immeasurably in Q&A after a presentation I'd done at the hospital. “I told you that I had come back from the battlefield and was now cutting people’s legs off at the hospital and became overwhelmed when I came home, turned the TV on and felt re-traumatized when the news was all negative.”
Not remembering my response, I asked, “Well, what did I tell you to do?” He replied, “You said, ‘Well, when you start feeling that way, shut the damn thing off.’”
Staying informed is good, in other words, being overwhelmed with negative information is bad. It's important that we stay current with what is going on with the coronavirus. Concern about those who are sick or who have died is a sign of compassion and helps us put our own situation in perspective. But continuing to read or watch until we become swamped with a feeling of helplessness makes no sense at all.
You talk about the pandemic as a chance to grow personally. How?
While not denying negative events in life or playing them down through psychological or spiritual romanticism, be open to how the situation can call you to become deeper as a person. This is known broadly in the literature as “post-traumatic growth.”
A simple example is that, in being open to the possible new wisdom you may gain during a pandemic, you may also find that you are now more in tune with the fragility of life and therefore stop rushing to your grave while thinking you will live forever. The increased silence and solitude of being at home for greater lengths of time may also give you the space to enjoy being with yourself more, increase appreciation for the friends you have and make you value the need to reflect on what is truly important in life — instead of what society may be trying to convince you is.
Pandemics are horrible and, of course, shouldn’t be welcomed or made light of. Make no mistake about this. However, when they do occur, the darkness they bring need not be the last word.
When we talk about resilience or self-care, we focus on handling our emotions. How do we get past ourselves to actually help others?
Unhealthy preoccupation with ourselves as opposed to appropriate self-care and self-concern are quite different. The dangers always are the two extremes: being “too much into yourself” and disregarding self-compassion when trying to be helpfully present to others. The bottom line is: Being compassionate is good; ignoring our own needs is bad.
One of the greatest things we can share with our family, friends and those who need our help is a sense of our own peace and resilience, but we can’t share what we don’t have. And so it's important to balance care for others with the space we have for ourselves.
For instance, silence, solitude and personal care — even if it is only for several minutes while we are in the bathroom — is crucial for personal renewal. Creative ways of self-care help enable us to reach out without being pulled down.
We're all now very attentive to not physically catching the corona virus from others. We should also be in tune with not becoming contaminated by others’ sense of negativity, depressive thinking and sense of helplessness. When we don’t honor self-care, the odds of such “psychological and spiritual contamination” increases.