Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness. – Desmond Tutu
[NOTE: This is this first piece in a COVID-19 recovery series]
Without a doubt, 2020 was a challenging year. Many of us greeted the New Year with arms wide open in anticipation of better days ahead. Out with the old and in with the new. The months of isolation, social and physical distancing, masking up and suffering so many losses has taken their toll on our mental health. Public surveys and reports from mental health authorities show that rates of depression and anxiety have increased exponentially as people attempt to navigate remote work, virtual classrooms or even worse — unemployment. Election fatigue, inaugural distress and racial injustice continue to plague society. Coping strategies are restricted with the closing of gyms, places of worship and many other gathering spaces due to COVID-19. Reports of Zoom fatigue have blanketed media. People who have access to resources are reaching out to mental health providers who are also feeling the exhaustion from a year of unprecedented circumstances. My own practice has been booked months in advance, and I am turning away new client inquiries and referring to colleagues whose schedules are also full.
Yes, 2020 was a year like no other for many of us. Only time will tell if 2021 will be as chaotic, but we already face challenges such as continuing political unrest, the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the presence of new, more transmissible COVID-19 variants and the snail-paced vaccine distribution process. As we forge ahead, recovery from the trauma will take time, patience and work. Yet, there are signs of change. Glimmers of hope. Flickers of light from the shards of a very broken year.
The New Year promised a fresh start, and the appearance of the “Christmas Star” on the Winter Solstice was a beautiful way to usher in 2021. The “star” is actually an astronomical event during which Jupiter and Saturn align so closely that they look like one radiant light.
Although Saturn and Jupiter align with each other every 20 years, it has been 400 years since they were this close to each other and nearly 800 years since the “Great Conjunction” occurred at night. Some have speculated that the star described in the Bible as leading the three Wise Men to the site of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem was, in truth, a Great Conjunction. Whatever the explanation, it was a sign of hope and peace to those who followed — and the key element is they followed.
Hope and mental health
As mental health clinicians, we know the importance of hope in wellness. Yet, we often forget that hope is also a verb. We create a space for hope in our sessions with our clients. We hold hope when our clients are unable.
There are three elements that accompany the experience of hope.
Having something to work toward can provide us with structure and predictability. However, we want to craft goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely (SMART). That should sound familiar to counselors. Often goals are too broad. For example, in my other life I owned an aerobic company and often provided personal training to people who attended the aerobic classes. Goal setting was an integral part of the training. At times, my clients would give me goals such as, “I want to be healthy.” “I want to be skinny.” “I want to be happy.” or “ I want to be active.” I would follow up each request with “What exactly does that mean? Paint a picture for me of what being “healthy, skinny, happy, or active” means to you? Then we would break it down into specific, manageable goals in which “being healthy” may mean running a first 5K race or being skinny may mean losing 10 pounds.
This year, one of my big goals is to celebrate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary this summer with family face to face, even if we need to meet outdoors. I have missed my family desperately this year. However, we have family members who are vulnerable, and we have resisted gathering this year because of the risks of COVID-19. What more joyous way is there to come out of the darkness of the pandemic than by celebrating the commitment and legacy of my parents’ union together.
Feeling empowered to shape your daily life.
Envisioning the outcome of your goal is so much a part of the process. Performance psychologists have utilized imagery for decades with athletes. Imagine yourself as already attaining the goal. Feel it already accomplished.
It is also important to recognize our agency and there are times when we really do not have control over things. I like to ask myself, “What do I have control over? What don’t I have control over?” I then focus on areas under my control.
For example, I worked toward a family gathering goal with something I could control by scheduling renovations to my home during the pandemic lockdown. I now have the space to celebrate when I am able to gather with my family again.
Additionally, I have been fortunate to be included in the first rounds of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. So, I will be fully immunized, as will be most (if not all) of my family members by summer. While I still anticipate taking precautions, there will be greater confidence in gathering.
Identifying ways to make goals happen.
Really lean into the role you play in accomplishing your goals. What steps do you need to take to achieve them? If you want an advanced degree, what is the next step? Information gathering? Taking the GRE? Applying for funding? Create a chart of the actual actions needed to be taken to achieve your goal.
As I make ready my home for celebrations and follow the CDC guidelines around my vaccine schedule and follow up protocol, I am furthering the vaccination efforts by volunteering with my local medical response corps. I am assisting in providing human resources to advance the distribution of the vaccines so that my family and community will have a better chance of achieving full immunization sooner. Check with your local agencies to see how you can promote the change you want to see. For example, senior and community centers need assistance with helplines that reach out to vulnerable populations to help them navigate the online vaccine registration process.
Hope in action requires motion. It requires feeding the flame with movement toward goals, desires, dreams. Hope is choosing to look beyond the darkness to recognize even the smallest glimmers of light and then magnifying them with our words, actions and deeds. The Wise Men saw the brightness of the star, and rather than stay in the darkness, they chose to follow the light. That is hope. Hope in action.
Let your COVID-19 recovery begin with hope in action.
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at email@example.com.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.