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Applying the psychological lessons of COVID in the post-pandemic era

As the campus resumes normal operations, we need to remain values-based, and be both tough and flexible

In rising to the challenge of COVID-19 we faced more than a year ago, we as a society and as a University rightly focused on the steps we needed to take so that we could all come out safely on the other side of this crisis, physically, medically and economically, with our lives and institution intact. That was what we should have done, first and foremost.

Speaking as a psychologist, however, it soon became clear we would also need to take care of our psychological health.  That did not mean just not succumbing to anxiety disorders, depression, or post-traumatic stress.  It also meant facing the challenges of COVID with needed psychological strength and resilience. The hard lessons we learned will allow us now to adjust to the challenges of the post-pandemic era in a way that can create prosperity for us as individuals and as an institution.

COVID was anything but fair. People with fewer means took on more of burden; people who have been on the receiving end of objectification and dehumanization took more of the punches. Still, after adjusting for that burden, some psychological approaches worked better than others.

Large studies have now shown that deploying a set of social and mental processes called “psychological flexibility” heavily influenced the impact of the pandemic. There are three main components to these skills: emotional and cognitive openness; flexible attention to what is present inside and out, while maintaining a sense of perspective and appreciating the perspective of others; and choosing one's own values and building social and behavioral habits around them.

These concepts form the model of mental prosperity I formulated decades ago here at UNR, and they undergird Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Training (“ACT” in either case), which is one of the most tested modern psychological intervention methods. Over a thousand studies show that the more we deploy these skills, the more resilient we are and the better our mental and behavioral outcomes. The positive impact of these methods and process proved true once again in the year of COVID.

That lesson was learned early enough in the pandemic and in such a clear way that the World Health Organization began distributing ACT materials in 14 different languages in a book they produced called “Doing What Matters in Times of Stress.” It is the WHO's only evidence-based “psychologically scalable” intervention for dealing with COVID in a healthy way.

The pandemic demanded that we face our fears in a healthy way; to deal with losses and potential losses in ways that foster human connection and caring; and to provide physical and mental support for our families, co-workers, health care providers and community in a way that is compassionate and loving. Psychological flexibility skills helped us to:

  • Address the emotional challenges of the pandemic with self-kindness and emotional openness
  • Take small steps back from our internal mental chatter, pausing long enough to pick out the thoughts that best support a wise path forward, and learning how to let go of the rest
  • Notice that we had available within a more "spiritual" sense of self that connects us in consciousness to other people, while fostering a greater capacity to choose which actions to take
  • Come into the present in a flexible, fluent, and voluntary way, focusing on what is actually of importance;
  • Connect strongly with the values we want to reflect during the crisis, both toward ourselves and others
  • Live our legacy by putting these values into action, whether it be self-care or social support and caring for others

Now, we are all facing a new challenge: the post-pandemic era. We are all being asked to “return to normal.” UNR students, professors, and administrative staff are being asked to be on site as of July 1 after a year of learning how to work remotely. Face to face meetings, drop by disruptions, more formal clothing, restrictions of freedom, constant and sometimes unwelcome oversight, and more are now on the menu.

Just as with hand-washing, social distancing and mask wearing, all of these changes will initially feel difficult and sometime unwelcome. Our psychological growth and resilience is about to be tested once again.

We should welcome it, firm in the knowledge that just as athletes know that physical success requires both strength and flexibility, the same is true mentally and socially. The post-pandemic era that is now beginning is asking us all to dig a little deeper and to find or acquire the psychological resources we need to be both tough and flexible.

Behavioral science has guidance it can provide. The science of psychological flexibility can help (access that WHO website for that free book!). But most of all you already have this wisdom within – you have these skills to deploy or at least the seeds of them. 

I can prove that to you in less than a minute. 

Think of the hardest psychological challenge you had in the year of COVID. Now, if you are in a private place, put your body in a shape that communicates to the outside (like that game of “statues” you played as a kid) you at your psychological worst in dealing with that challenge. Now put your body in a shape that if it were frozen in place as a sculpture would show what it is like to be you at your psychological best in dealing with that same challenge.

My students and I have given people around the world this simple challenge and if we score the resulting photos on the dimensions of “open/closed; aware/unaware; engaged/non-engaged” blindly (blindly, so raters do not know if this is a “best” or “worst” photo) the “best” photos are more open, aware, and actively engaged. Worse photos are the opposite: heads go down, eyes close, arms and hands come in or fists clench, bodies bend in a defensive or aggressive posture.

Those postures are metaphors for psychological flexibility or inflexibility. You already know in your gut that freezing, fleeing, fighting, or flopping when faced with challenges will not work, and that the opposite approach is far better.

OK then! We are headed back to campus!

Yes, it will be a challenge (and more for some, than for others). Let’s learn the lesson of the last year and metaphorically lift up our heads; open our eyes, arms and hands wide; and step boldly toward creating a post-pandemic era that is aware, open, loving, kind, supportive and values-based.

(Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D., is a Nevada Foundation Professor of Psychology in the Behavior Analysis program at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the most cited scientist in the state, and one of most cited in the world. He is author of A Liberated Mind, which tells the personal and science story of psychological flexibility. Find his work on Psychology Today, and follow @StevenCHayes on Twitter or Steven Hayes on Facebook.)

Photo by Myra Merrill

Steven Hayes
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