“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
— Viktor E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”
We are living in a challenging time as we face the COVID-19 threat and its impact on ourselves and around the world. The extent of harm and death is tragic; therefore, we must we pay close attention to the effect this plague is having on our mental and emotional health. Although COVID-19 and the Holocaust differ in obvious and noteworthy respects, I believe it’s fair and useful to look for common themes in an effort to cope with our present challenges.
As a practicing psychotherapist, I have noticed a significant increase in the number of people experiencing anxiety and depression over the past couple of months. These negative emotional states seem to be exponentially spreading, much as the coronavirus is, causing serious harm to our emotional stability as well as our social, relational and occupational functioning. We must act before the situation worsens.
For generations, Jews have demonstrated resilience and strength; traits that enabled them to survive difficult moments in history. An awareness of past struggles provides important perspectives and offers hope as we navigate through this crisis. When times feel troubling, reflecting on how in the past struggled and survived can offer comfort and strengthen our resolve during the current pandemic.
Just a few weeks ago, Jews around the world observed Yom Ha-shoah Ve-hagevurah. The Holocaust and Hero’s Memorial Day commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and the brave resistance fighters who knowingly sacrificed their lives in an effort to strike back at the evils of Nazism. Today, we watch and honor the courageous first responders and health care workers who voluntarily put their own lives at risk to heal and save the ill. These brave citizens are willing to take great risks, including the possibility of contracting the virus and falling ill or even dying.
The spirit of self-sacrifice and determination to endure risks in hopes of inspiring and saving others promotes optimism, strength and hope. Acts of kindness, compassion, and righteousness cultivate happiness and combat negative thinking. During the Holocaust, ordinary Jews offered their rations to the ill and frail. Today, many people are offering their resources and assistance to support our COVID-19 warriors. Their example should inspire all of us to act with courage and kindness. Their selfless acts, like the examples of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps somehow managing to help others, build a sense of community at a time when we’re forced to distance ourselves from others. Activating and utilizing our support system greatly aids in alleviating anxiety and depression.
When World War II broke out, what was normal was quickly turned upside down. For countless Jews, the future became filled with uncertainties as people were forced to adjust to a new world. The horrendous conditions and the enormous loss generated fear and sadness. Some individuals felt isolated, as they found themselves alone in a world of despair and ruin.
Today, as we find ourselves feeling isolated, scared and confused, we can be mindful of how Holocaust survivors were able to pull through. They teach us that things can pass. Accepting reality and confronting fear may bring some relief from the pain COVID-19 has inflicted. Focusing on what we have control over is powerful and makes it easier to let go of negative thoughts that provoke anxiety and depression.
My experience has taught me that in responding to the virus two options appear. The first views our collective experience as doom and gloom. The second searches for hope and meaning. As might be expected, individuals who choose the first option are prone to anxiety and depression. The second choice nurtures emotional stability, resilience and higher tolerance to fear.
There is opportunity to reflect and reset undesirable old habits. Many people have realized how they can become a better person and discover what truly is important. They’re increasingly driven to achieve personal goals and commit to making the world a better place.
There is no question that this situation is difficult, and many people have experienced substantial hardships. All the same, each of us has the option to decide how to respond. Rather than obsessing about the crisis and poisoning ourselves with negativity, let’s look for silver linings and strive to turn bad into good.
Greg Parrish is a licensed clinical social worker and holds a master’s degree in social work.