Thought Leadership

Glimmers of hope - Coping with stress and trauma of the past two years

March 2022

Clinal Psychologist, Dr Palesa Mahlangu defines stress as a state of mental or emotional strain and trauma as any stressful experience outside the normal human experience. She explains that the last two years with the Covid-19 pandemic have been traumatic to people across the globe. This included having to work from home and losing the demarcation between work and home as well as having to redefine personal spaces, along with children being at home and in a lot of cases just not having enough space. But the many aspects of the traumatic stress can be best understood in relation to how they impacted our basic physiological and psychological needs as outlined in Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.

  • The Loss of income saw many people struggle with the basic need for food and having to rely on social grants which helped a lot but could never have been enough.
  • People’s sense of safety and security was greatly harmed by the constant threat of catching the virus along with job insecurity and uncertainty.
  • Our need for love and belonging was affected by the isolation and subliminal sense of rejection that came with quarantines, social distancing, not being able to embrace or even shake hands with others, or having food dropped at the gate. This also included the trauma of not being able to attend funerals or view the dead during burials with many people still wondering if the person they buried was indeed their loved one. This causes continued trauma known as intrusive recall and in many cases, people are suffering from regular nightmares due to the stress.  Alongside this was the trauma of suddenly being barred from our cultural, spiritual, and religious practices. This was devastating for a lot of people for whom church is a sanctuary.
  • The mass failure of business and job losses also impacted the higher order needs for self-esteem and self-actualisation as people had to rely on the charity of others and in a lot of cases lost the sense of their station in life and their role in families and communities.

Dr Mahlangu emphasises the importance of all of us being sensitive to the traumatic stress that everybody around us may be struggling with at work, at home and in all other areas of interactions. Seeking professional help is critical. Regular feeling of being stressed or unhappy is not normal and it is best to speak with a trained professional who can provide an objective view and recommend ways to deal with the stress or trauma. Psychologists generally try to find natural remedies while Psychiatrist tend to focus more on medication. Both can and do prescribe medication, because a lot of mental health issues are either caused by chemical imbalances in brains that cause psychological stress or they induce the imbalance resulting in the stress.
She also recommends the following to help us all cope better:

  • Recognise that people need social support and constantly work at it. We should try as much as possible to regain social normalcy, even as we are still cautious about personal contacts.  Communing regularly in safe open places outside of the house where it is safe is very important.
  • Regular exposure to nature and the sun not only strengthens our immune system through providing Vitamin D, but the sun is a great psychological healer. When people are depressed they tend to move away from natural light and will often shut themselves off in a dark room with curtains drawn even during the day. So consciously moving to light can help in dealing with stress or depression.
  • Regular exercise also affects both body and mind. A regular brisk walk where it is safe, even in your own yard, for just 30 minutes, has great mental benefits. Those who are spiritual can try to brisk walk and pray at the same time which have a remarkable psychological impact
  • Remembering to eat healthy is also critical because we tend to gravitate to fat saturated and sugary food when we are not feeling well. Drinking water regularly to keep hydrated also has physical and mental health benefits.
  • Make effort to limit our exposure to negativity because positive thinking is also critical. We are surrounded with negativity in the news and social media. Taking a break from tv, social media and being with nature helps to limit our exposure to traumatic stress.
  • Keep gratitude journal, you can use an old notebook. I always encourage people to take a minute when going to bed to draw a vertical line in the centre of a page and then write everything that was a challenge during the day.  On the right, jot down all the blessing of the day, even something as simple as someone greeting you. When someone says “Sawubona”, they are saying that they see you, it is a recognition of your being and worth because they would not greet you if you were not worthy. That is why most people never bother to greet homeless people whom they see as dirty and not worthy of being greeted or acknowledged, which tends to create or worsen psychosis in homeless people who experience this daily.
  • Faith helps you to not feel alone because you get a sense of a higher being who is with you and in control, even if you are facing turmoil and uncertainty.

Dr. Palesa Mahlangu started her career as a social worker in Soweto in the 80s providing care to migrant labourers who had been injured in the mines. She started her practice as a Clinical Psychologist specialising in trauma counselling in 1996 after completing her MSc in Personality Psychology and D.Litt et Phill in 1993. She currently works from her consulting room at the Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital in Auckland Park where she provides individual counselling, training of practitioners, as well as workshops for management and staff through corporate wellness programmes.

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