Coping with COVID-19 from a Psychotherapist’s Perspective
The following excerpt is written by Tahl Leibovitz for the United Nations Sports Campaign in response to COVID-19 (Re-posted with permission from Tahl):
I am a professional table tennis athlete and social worker in New York City. I work in private practice as a psychotherapist. I also work visiting home-bound older adults (which is on hold for now) and I do group therapy work for organizations such as the New York City Department of Mental Health & Hygiene. There are quite a few different things to possibly consider writing about due to all of the current challenges in the world that are occurring simultaneously.
In my line of work, I get asked frequently about mental well-being and how to be “okay” during times of instability. I have spoken to quite a few people in the mental health field and have been working with groups as well as individuals during this crisis. In these interactions, there have been many reports of struggles with groundlessness, loss of self-identity and inability to find meaning.
One of the strengths of sport is that it can be a powerful unifier. Sport itself, regardless of the activity, is a collective endeavor. It is something we do together as athletes, as spectators, as coaches and as people. In the mental health field, some specialists try and differentiate between the “individual” and the “collective” when it comes to finding solutions to reported mental discomfort. In other words, some believe that the challenge is how a person relates to themselves and others believe the challenge is how a person relates to their environment.
In my own work, I have found it to be a little bit of both. However, there is no question that what we are experiencing in this world right now with COVID-19 is collective. We are all in this together and we need to find a path that allows us to relate to ourselves and to others in a healthy, kind way, as well as to relate to the environment in the same manner.
COVID-19 is unpredictable in the fact that we have a limited idea of what could happen to us or what could happen to our loved ones. We don’t know how long it will take us to find a job again if we have gotten laid off. Some of us do not even know if we will be able to stay in our homes because we are facing possible eviction. Some of us have lost our means to generate income. The adjustment for many of us has been difficult and the thought of an uncertain future can be even more troublesome. These are all very real problems for countless people from all walks of life.
There are many different ways that we could attempt to try and address the multifaceted challenges associated with COVID-19. A quote from Victor Frankel comes to mind, which states, “When we are no longer able to change a situation-we are challenged to change ourselves.” Cognitive Therapy techniques also come to mind when they tell us we cannot control what is going on in our minds, but we have some control over how we respond to those thoughts. Existential Psychotherapy is another great avenue because it asks us not to focus only on what is in our mind, but to focus on our life and the way that we lead that life.
We have been told that we should avoid watching the news for long periods of time, we should try and stay as close as possible to the normal way we have been doing things, we should take deep breaths, we should meditate, get good sleep, eat well and try to be healthy. All good things and probably very helpful. Positive psychology tells us that if we smile more, we will be happier. If we work closer to home, we will live more satisfying lives. If we practice gratitude, we will feel better, and a multitude of other things to be mindful of, which could be helpful for us. Probably good things to do as well. But is there something more?
What about Victor Frankel? When we can’t change a situation, do we have to accept the challenge to change ourselves? Victor Frankel said that everything can be taken from a human being, but there is one thing that cannot be taken – one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. The question that comes to my mind as a human being and a psychotherapist is “Does Covid-19 make it more likely that human life is meaningless, or does it make it more likely that human life is more meaningful?” I don’t know the answer to that question, but the closest therapeutic model to finding meaning in suffering is Existential Psychotherapy.
Existential Psychotherapy says that as human beings, we have to constantly create and re-create our own meaning because life’s meaning is always changing. This psychotherapy modality also believes that anxiety is part of the human condition and that each person has an unique identity which can only be known through relationships with others. Existential Therapy is saying that we have the responsibility to improve our own lives and to make our own lives more meaningful. So, what can we do right now to try make our lives more manageable and make the world a better place? What can we do to feel okay when we are surrounded by uncertainly? We can make a choice to act responsibly. We can choose to respond as opposed to react. We can improve creativity, focus on being authentic and examine free will. We can confront feelings of suffering and meaninglessness. We can suspend judgment and be kind to ourselves during this volatile period.
Existential Psychotherapy gives focus to life and the way that you want to lead that life in connection with others. So, it’s not just about what’s going on in your thoughts, but it’s also what’s going on between you and the other people around you. It’s easy to ask how the world connects to us and what the world can give us, but can we possibly instead ask how we can connect to the world? Especially now, when most of us are forced to disconnect through social distancing and staying at home.
Psychotherapy is about the focus of self. With all that is going on now, it may be a good time to instead turn our focus to the world. At this time, we could be more reflective about our lives and the lives of others in an attempt to come to terms with COVID-19. We are not alone. We are all collectively in this together.
The true objective of Existential Psychotherapy is to find a way how not to just protect ourselves from pain and suffering, but to take everything no matter what it is and do something with it. Emmy Van Deurzen, one of the great contemporary thinkers of Existential Psychotherapy said that “the challenge for human beings is to learn to receive life, reflect on it and make something of it.” When life is finished, all the difficulties we think we had, become obsolete. They don’t exist anymore. We simply cannot enjoy our lives all the time without pain. We cannot have health without being sick. Life does not work like that. We cannot always have things go well and never have things be chaotic. We are now in difficult chaotic times, but we will be in better times again.
It could be helpful to keep in mind that you cannot hurt someone unless they cease to become someone. We hurt someone because we are able to take someone that happens to be human and invent something that says they are not human. This person is __________. Therefore, they are not good. It is much easier to remove someone’s humanity than to see someone’s humanity and embrace that humanity. Be kind to others. It makes you better and it makes the world better. We will make it through COVID-19 and get to the other side.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. In my own journey as a social worker, I would like to thank those who provided information to help me to assist others (in no particular order): Brene Brown, Emmy Van Deurzen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Robert Kuperman, and others.
The following are public resources that may be useful:
About Tahl Leibovitz
Tahl Leibovitz is a JOOLA-sponsored coach, professional table tennis athlete, licensed social worker, and licensed psychotherapist. He has combined his passion for table tennis and for helping others into Project Table Tennis, an organization that utilizes the sport to create meaningful relationships between people. Tahl is recognized as a Champion of Peace by Peace and Sport.
In addition to representing the USA as a 6x Paralympian preparing for the 2021 Paralympic Games, Tahl currently serves as the Mental Wellness and Life Coach for USA Table Tennis (USATT), working with athletes to improve their mental health and well-being.