Keeping hope alive in challenging times

We can learn a lot from previous generations. Think about our ancestors who survived the Famine, wars, high child mortality rates, poor medical care and working conditions, the scourge of TB, and shortage of money.

How did they cope when faced with what must have seemed like insurmountable obstacles? When hope dimmed and they feared for the lives of their families and close knit communities? When tomorrow appeared even bleaker than the previous day?

From the annals of history and anecdotal evidence it is very apparent what those strong, courageous, and inspiring people did in testing times - they kept going. They did not hide beneath the bed sheets waiting for the crisis to pass or accept defeat easily or lose sight of the blue skies all too often obscured by black clouds. They literally put one foot in front of the other and got on with life. They were inventive, they found new ways of doing things and of stretching threadbare budgets. They sought and found support in their families and villages and carried each other when their burdens became too much.

That very philosophy may serve us all well now and in the future as we are forced to embrace new realities and dig deep inside ourselves to discover or reignite the resilience, values, and resources which will sustain and motivate us in these challenging times.

Athlone native, Dr. Michael Hardiman (PhD ), a Galway based psychologist and the author of a number of books, says in times of adversity our values and resources are revealed. “When the tide goes out, you see the rocks, that was one of the things that struck me.”

He says people with a strong faith and those who have developed internal resources will cope well during this crisis. They will derive meaning from the current situation. “People who connect with a higher power will find it easier to manage, they can cope better with adversity. They will get emotional support and comfort from being connected to a bigger picture and from feeling they are not alone in the universe. This has been the case down through time.”

Equally, those who tend to be introverted and enjoy their own company will deal effectively with the change in lifestyle imposed by the coronavirus, he believes. “They have a very rich internal life, they like to reflect, read, watch documentaries, and broaden their minds. For the majority though that is not the case and isolation will cause them distress. We only need look at solitary confinement which is a form of torture. Humans are social creatures, if you take away social contact, it causes them emotional pain.

“Our relationships and connections with people affirm our own identity in the world. They feed into our sense of self worth. That’s why we do small talk. Without these, there is a feeling of being abandoned.”

People in strained relationships may also feel particularly alone at this time, he says. “There can be a problem with being alone with somebody else. If it is a difficult relationship that can put a lot of pressure on people. Some would say that there is one thing worse than being lonely and that is being lonely with someone else.”

Spiritual resources

But if you lack both the religious beliefs and inner assets which help bolster one’s coping skills and are missing the external distractions which normally keep boredom at bay, there is a lot you can do to help yourself, according to the psychologist. This is the perfect time to develop emotional, mental, and spiritual resources, he says. These will help cushion you against loneliness, an emotion that in normal circumstances many people would not experience until their later years, he outlines.

Our interests and various engagements give our lives meaning, according to Michael Hardiman. “If we look at the Premiership or the GAA, for example, people identify with their teams, they invest emotions in them, and they [these interests] provide a sense of meaning and value in our lives. They offer a similar relationship as some have with religion. Being a sports fan emotionally has a powerful effect on the consciousness. You feel you belong to something bigger than yourself.” The cancellation of sports events may leave a void in people’s lives and it is important to find ways to fill this.

Channelling your energy into learning, being creative, deepening your relationships with your loved ones and developing new social connections, albeit from a distance, will help. Journalling may be beneficial too. “When you write something, you are putting [your feelings] on paper, you are releasing them and this can relieve tension.”

The current crisis will give families an opportunity to get to know each other better. “For the vast bulk of the history of humanity we didn’t have such distractions [as in recent times]. Back in my father’s day you played cards or did embroidery, woodwork, or painting. Board games such as Trivial Pursuit or Monopoly are good for focusing attention, creating a communication cycle, and offering a distraction. Some end in a fight but that’s where you develop tolerance!”

You could also work on becoming fit and healthy in mind and body, both strong defences against stress. Many, especially younger people, will rely on social media to keep in touch. “This is going to be a salve for some.”

He is encouraging people to become learners. “It is very important to find healthy ways of alleviating boredom and stress. Some will get out and walk or run but even that can become difficult. Some will be in the fridge more often! Generally, people with bad habits will have worse ones when coping with a lot of distress.

“Aim to learn new things. YouTube makes an enormous wealth of information available - history (you can learn about the French Revolution or the Fall of the Roman Empire or there is philosophy, psychology, geography, or mathematics. All the stuff that historically education has offered but that people have unlearned because they were so busy working their asses off!

“You can go onto YouTube and get a lecture series from Yale [University]. That way you are learning and you have something to talk about. Being reflective and taking time to learn things makes you a more interesting person. The internet, films, and television are an important comfort, too. Stress relieving exercises or meditation (the internet is full of it ) will help you create a more peaceful environment.” The healing power of laughter cannot be overemphasised. “I would recommend that people watch lots of comedy and cut down on binge watching hourly updates of virus progression.”

Pressing issues

He maintains people are coping with two pressing issues right now. “They are not only dealing with a loss of structure they also have more time on their hands. Previously their productive energies were being used up at work or through sport, now there is all this pent-up energy. Most people going through this are in their adult years, they may be 40 and out of a job, living in an apartment, and cannot see their girlfriend. They wouldn’t normally experience this type of loneliness until they were in their 70s.”

“As a society we spent decades promoting a very individualistic form of life. As a result, many people are going to find this [the coronavirus challenge] very difficult because the resilience for this type of crisis has not been developed. Individualism tends to make us selfish and fail to develop tolerance for others’ foibles such as giving people the benefit of the doubt.” The current situation is shining a light on issues such as loneliness and tolerance and when this difficult time passes he believes there may be “enormous benefits” for society in terms of people being more empathetic and tolerant.

He is impressed by how the Government has dealt with the Covid-19 crisis. “I absolutely think it has handled it very well and that we will see a major change in its attitude to our citizens, especially the marginalised, in the future.”

The psychologist was concerned initially that the focus seemed to be on older people when reporting about the virus. “When reporting mortality rates from the virus they [the health authorities/media] tended to talk about the elderly. “But that basically innoculated younger people against taking care. They felt they didn’t need to because they had no social responsibility. That was an unforseen consequence when they were just describing the cohort of people. But it is important to remember the young are standing on the shoulders of the giants who broke their backs for this generation.”

This crisis is unique in terms of the fact that unlike other major historical challenges which brought people together physically to derive comfort, strength, and support from each other, this pandemic by its very nature is driving us apart.

“One big difference between this crisis and others is that, in most cases, major adversities such as earthquake, fires, floods, wars and the like have the effect of binding people together against the common enemy, either nature or some external attack. A classic example being the London Blitz and 9/11. People shared food, huddled together in the Undergrounds, sang and cheered each other up. The insidiousness of this crisis is that it separates people and we have little history to help us understand how this will play out in the longer term.”

He expressed concern about the possibility of people behaving in risky or reckless ways as has been witnessed during other crises in the past.

“This behaviour happens when people throw caution to the wind and begin to think in terms of the biblical injunctions: ‘Let’s eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’. This is well evidenced by the reckless behaviour that swept through the gay community in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS epidemic. So we have to consider how to create conditions where people can offer comfort and support to each other while reducing the risk of infection. This needs to be thought through in the next week of so.”

Michael Hardiman says it is very important when struggling with the fallout from this global pandemic to maintain hope, to remind ourselves that someday it will be over. “Remember Winston Churchill’s words:’If you are going through hell, keep going,’ or the Alcoholics Anonymous [phrase] ‘This too shall pass’.”

Realise too that no matter how difficult your circumstances are and if you feel rudderless as you struggle to navigate the current choppy waters you still have control of your life. Michael Hardiman sums it all up:”Life is 10 per cent what happens to you and 90 per cent how you react to it.”

Michael Hardiman is the author of five books dealing with addiction and recovery, personal development, men’s issues, and healing from past hurts and life damaging trauma. He is offering these books free of change to people now. They are available to download from his website, He is also planning some online classes which will start next week.


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