We Need Time to Rehabilitate from the Trauma of the Pandemic
The early days of the pandemic were a shock, causing a spike in adrenaline, which stops us from feeling pain, so we can get out of danger, and spurs intense alertness to help us make better split-second decisions. Next was a period of prolonged psychic pain, which came from three deep psychological needs not being met: our needs for certainty, control, and connectedness. We’re now in the rehabilitation phase, which can be the most painful of all, because we need to dig a little deeper to rebuild, repair, and regrow. The author, cofounder of the Neuroleadership Institute, offers three pieces of advice: 1) Don’t move too fast. The closer you get to the finish line, the more likely you are to rush and have another setback. 2) Value progress. Name which skills have atrophied and remember that incremental progress is the key to recovery. 3) Remember that we’re all the working wounded. Have compassion for yourself and for others.
I was a few minutes into a run when it happened. Moving fast along the grassy edge of a backwoods road, my left foot found the edge of a pothole, and my ankle rolled.
The intense pain put me into shock, a sequence of metabolic phenomena that starts with a burst of adrenaline. A remnant of our evolutionary past, when a burst of energy may have helped us outrun a predator, adrenaline has multiple other effects. It stops us from feeling pain, so we can get out of danger in the moment. It also spurs intense alertness to help us make better split-second decisions.
Of course, these kinds of shocks can be caused by psychological trauma, as well as physical injury. Think back to the early days of the pandemic, when the world as we knew it changed in what felt like an instant.
Being in shock with others has the intriguing effect of bonding you together. “The start of this was the easy part,” one CEO told me recently, echoing what I’ve heard from hundreds of other executives. “We were all fired up, sharing this incredible experience, with an intense mission that kept us focused. We needed to save the company, protect our customers, and keep the ship afloat. Compared to now, those early days were a breeze.”
During the shock phase, the brain does what it needs to do to get you through the moment. It’s when the shock subsides and the pain kicks in that things really start to be problematic.
Phase two of our collective global trauma, the pain stage, started around April 2020, once we realized the pandemic wasn’t going to be over in a month or two.
This prolonged period of psychic pain came from three deep psychological needs not being met. First, our need for certainty was thrown off track. Our lives are built on patterns we can count on like where our clothes hang, when we eat breakfast, the way we get to the office. Studies show that even banal certainties activate reward networks in the brain, whereas mild ambiguities can activate strong threat responses, using networks similar to those triggered by physical pain. The absence of reliable patterns means it literally hurts when we’re not able to think more than a few days ahead.
The second psychological need that wasn’t being met is our desire for control, or autonomy, which has plummeted with every new confusing piece of information about the virus. For a long time, we didn’t know whether masks made a difference, whether to let our mail sit for 48 hours before opening it, or whether going to buy groceries was banal or potentially life threatening. As humans, we crave control, so this reduced feeling of having a say in the outcome further triggered us.
Finally, there was our desire for connectedness with others, our normal go-to when things get tough, which was wrenched away with lockdowns. Gone were the consoling hugs, the warmth of a friend’s touch, the ability to even just be around others. Instead, we had the pain of isolation, which studies show can be even more debilitating to our health than smoking.
The pain started to diminish this summer, as vaccinations rolled out and we thought maybe we were out of the worst of it. We were ready to get back to the office or go on vacation. Then of course came Delta, and now Omicron.
Which brings us to our current stage — rehabilitation, which can be the most painful of all. It’s when we need to rebuild, repair, and regrow. And yet, by this point, we might be so over that walking boot, or that home office, that we can hardly stand it. And, as we learned in recent months, it’s all too easy for our hopes to be dashed and to fall into despair if we feel we have a setback.
For this last difficult phase, we have to dig deep to make this time a little easier, particularly as we focus on getting back to normal routines at work. Here are three ideas to consider during recovery.
Don’t move too fast.
After a month of icing and rest, my muscles had atrophied, but I didn’t know it. A few days after I started to run again — just a little earlier than my doctor recommended — I felt a painful twinge in my ankle, and I hung up my running shoes for another frustrating month.
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.
Many companies rushed to make back-to-the-office plans for the fall, but the pandemic had other ideas. Some firms exhausted their project teams by moving the goalposts multiple times, before recognizing that this rehabilitation phase will take however long it will take. Others reopened offices, only to discover that a small percentage of employees at most felt safe enough to come back.
The lesson? Wait until your ankle, or your employees, are truly ready for action before you make big changes. And when you make those plans, take it slow and give everyone a lot of time to digest and process those plans. We’re all still a little tender.
Speaking of tenderness, our nearly two years of working from home have caused many social skills to atrophy. Some of us have forgotten how to be civil in public, how to be in a meeting in the same room, or how to manage normal workplace stress on top of all our other emotions.
There’s power in labeling the skills that have atrophied, and the stresses we’re experiencing around them. Studies show that putting words on difficult emotions helps dampen them, because labeling puts distance between our experience and the sensation.
Some leaders will be frustrated when things aren’t moving at a fast clip. But incremental progress is key to recovery. For our brains to meet long-term goals, they must receive smaller, rewarding, dopamine-releasing progress markers. So keep celebrating the wins, no matter how small.
Remember we’re all working wounded.
Perhaps the most important takeaway in the rehab stage is to have patience. Self-compassion through adversity is linked to more stable resilience and is a predictor of well-being. It’s easy in times of recovery and isolation to become so introspective that we forget others are struggling with recovery, too. 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.
To that end, it’s important to note that studies on the length of time needed for trauma recovery show wide variability. Some people recover in months, and others need years. No two rehabilitations — whether it’s on an individual level or an organizational one — will look the same, so having compassion with where people are at will be paramount to come out of rehab strong.
These days, I’m still running, but doing so less frequently. My ankle has healed but it’s not back to full strength, so I’m only running on the beach. I miss those road runs, but recognize that I, too, am still in rehab.