Many would argue war represents something quite removed from the pandemic, but the unfortunate reality is the similarities are striking. COVID-19 has created feelings of guilt and shame among those responsible for introducing it to an environment. People have faced increasing periods of isolation during lock downs and social distancing. The unemployment rate has soared, adding to the feelings of low self-worth. These feelings and similarities are also seen in The Syrian Refugee Crisis, which has divided a nation. Few can understand the emotional turmoil of leaving your home and family to travel to a foreign country and safety. There is little doubt guilt plays a huge part in this emotional turmoil. These two examples show how in periods of emotional turmoil, emotions like guilt and shame bore down into the psyche and test a person’s self-worth. If the worse were to be assumed, one might be forgiven for saying that the pandemic’s real effects are yet to come. The second part of this research attempts to create a context for this crisis in self-worth, providing a further example and several pieces of academic research.
THE LESSONS OF YEARS GONE BY
The Next Generation in Warfare
- Returning home from the Vietnam War, soldiers faced mixed reviews. Tensions were high, and groups polarized. The people back home in the US could never understand Vietnam’s realities; it represented a new type of warfare, one that lacked, for want of a better description, the civilities of previous wars. Much is written about the “honor of war,” but the reality is, for many, war is not honorable; it is normal men doing what they have to, to go home. Instead of the hero’s welcome, seen at the end of previous American wars, many Vietnam veterans returned home quietly, without fanfare through the back door.
- There were no victory parades; instead, anti-war protesters spat on them and called them baby killers. Struggling to readjust to life back home, many veterans became increasingly isolated with increasing feelings of guilt and shame.
- Subsequent research has studied the impact of isolation and loneliness on mental health and self-worth. Dr. Saha, who works at the VA welfare in Portland, explains, “Humans are social beings, and connection to others is part of what buoys us in a stressful world. When people are cut off from others—whether they are truly socially isolated and are alone or just feel isolated and are lonely—they are navigating their lives without the stabilizing ballast of friends and loved ones. That can lead to major depression and its cardinal symptoms: feeling down, fatigued, overwhelmed, and unmotivated.”
- Two causative factors for these symptoms are a loss of self-esteem and feelings of low self-worth. Data collected subsequently paints a harsh reality for Vietnam Veterans. One study found 36.2% of participants had suicidal ideations. Subsequent research has shown that the veterans self-isolating had a seven-fold increase in the risk of suicide.
The Syrian Refugee Crisis
- Since 2011 more than 6.6 million Syrians have been forced to leave their country. A further 6.7 million remained trapped within Syria’s borders. The crisis began in 2011 with violent crackdowns on public demonstrations supporting teenagers caught under the anti-graffiti laws. The violence escalated, and many families attempted to flee Syria to safety. Currently, 12 million Syrians have been displaced by the violence, and more than 1 million Syrian babies have been born in exile
- . The loss of dignity and the loss of self-worth that ensues among refugees is well documented. These feelings have, in many respects, hijacked the opportunity to start a new life. The emotional turmoil among the Syrians is elevated by the fact many of the refugees face separation from their families, coupled with the knowledge they are safe, but there families remain at risk. It is a situation that, in many respects, can only be described as heartbreaking.
- The loss of self-worth becomes more prominent as time passe, fueled by both shame and guilt. The loss of self-worth creates a lifetime burden. One that many Syrians have found too much to bear, returning to their former home in an attempt to alleviate it.
- Culture shocks, coupled with language and cultural difficulties have added to feelings of worthlessness
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN EMOTIONAL TURMOIL AND SELF-WORTH
Impact of the Death of a Spouse on the Widows Sense of Self Worth
- In 2010, research was completed to evaluate the impact the death of a spouse had on elderly women, the loneliness that ensued, and the impact on their long-term feeling of self-worth. The study followed women for a year following the death of their spouse. The effects of loneliness were evaluated, as were interventions to alleviate the loneliness.
- The impact of loneliness resulted in higher mortality rates, illness, and depression than married counterparts. Often the loneliness grew to become “obsessive thoughts of the deceased, restlessness, insomnia, somatic complaints, and even hallucinations of the deceased, and poor mental well-being.”
- An increase in the number of suicides and suicide attempts among this cohort has been attributed to loneliness, resulting in feelings of poor self-worth and low self-esteem. The study found that roles play a significant part in alleviating a lack of self-worth. This is one reason elderly widows are hit so hard by the death of their spouse. The role of being a wife is what they have known for a significant portion of their life. Suddenly the role is gone, along with their sense of self-identity.
- Societal and familial support is considered fundamental if elderly widows are to recover their sense of self-worth. Social contact and a sense of purpose help alleviate feelings of loneliness, but any intervention needs to be sensitive. With their husbands’ loss, many widows have also experienced the loss of meaning in life, so everything around them becomes meaningless.
The COVID-19 Context
- During world war one, 116,516 American soldiers died, a further 405,399 during world war two, 36.,516 in the Korean war, 58,209 in Vietnam, 294 in the Gulf war, 2,216 in Afghanistan, and 4,497 in Iraq. The combined duration of these wars is 59 years and in total 623,647 American lives have been lost in the major wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This equates to 10,570 lives per year of war.
- The first death as a result of COVID-19 in the US occurred on 6 February 2020. As at 25 January 2021, less than a year later, there had been 429,490 deaths in US. In fact only the American Civil War, with combined confederate and US army deaths of 655,000 presents with a higher death toll, and it would be a brave man who would bet against that figure being surpassed.
- The emotional turmoil of war has been shown to impact considerably on an individual’s self-worth. It may be too early in the pandemic to determine the degree that the pandemic’s emotional turmoil will impact self-worth. What is known is based on the figures above and history, the severity, in terms of lives lost, is worse than every major US war (except the civil war), seemingly suggesting protective mechanisms need to be employed to minimize the impact of a likely downturn of self-worth.
The Vivious Cycle of Low Self-Worth and Stress
- The relationship between low self-worth or low self-esteem and stress is well documented. The two are inextricably linked. One of the unfortunate realities is that stress is often more destructive when a person has a low self-worth due to the interaction of the two. Further consistent stressful situations have the net result of progressively eating away at an individual’s self-worth.
- Self-worth and self-esteem are often used interchangeably. Both relate to a person’s perception of themselves, their skills, qualities, and abilities. In effect, self-worth drives a person’s behavior, dictating on many occasions how they interact.
- A lack of self-worth makes stress seem insurmountable, turning regular events into a burden. The progressive nature of stress and its impact can be insidious at first, but stress levels continue to rise as self-worth falls.
- In many respects, low self-worth is the driver, and stress the symptom. When someone is suffering the symptoms of stress, everyday things become harder. This results in further questions relating to self-worth and, in most instances, an additional negative hit, which in itself creates more stress and so on.
- The cyclical nature of stress and low self-worth means that the pandemic is like fuel for the fire for individuals already experiencing low self-worth. It will escalate stress, which will impact the ability to cope with isolation, social distancing, and lock downs.
The Changing Workplace Environment
- When COVID-19 hit the front pages of the papers, few realized one of the effects would be the workplace environment was about to change forever for a lot of people. The subsequent lock downs resulted in staff from many “non-essential” businesses sent home to work, many of them permanently as employers attempt to carve out a way forward.
- For some, their perception of self-worth is tied to their success in the office environment. Without an office environment, concerns have been raised regarding some employees’ ongoing mental well-being. There are fears that the isolation will create a lack of purpose, which would have a flow-on effect on long-term mental well-being and their sense of self-worth.
- Employers are being encouraged to take some responsibility and institute measures that monitor employee mental well-being and offer assistance if required. In some quarters, there are those challenging employers to think beyond protective clothing and acknowledge that the changes to the work environment have the hallmarks of a second pandemic, one that may not have the direct casualty rate of COVID-but has the potential to be every bit as deadly.
- The emotional turmoil of losing their workplace has the potential to serve as a catalyst of negativity which has the potential to stretch mental health services even further.
Self-Worth and Emotion
- Self-worth is linked to both positive and negative states. A study in 2020 sought to explore this relationship.
- This study involved 178 participants from the University of Washington. The first part of the study saw the students undertake a range of personality and self-esteem tests, which were saved and analyzed. The key take-home points from that aspect of the study were not all positive or negative emotions are associated with self-esteem.
- Pride and shame were closely related, as were success and failure.
- The second part of the study made self-esteem the focus evaluating it against other emotional variables to determine its relationship with each. Positive and negative affective states were found to be chronic conditions rather than transient or momentary states. Self-worth was found to be closely associated with self-relevant emotions. Self-esteem was found to moderate a person’s self-relevant emotions to failure, particularly the feelings of pride, shame, success, and failure.
- COVID-19 is polarizing society. Pride, shame, success, and failure have been used extensively throughout the pandemic. All four are linked to a person’s sense of worth. Internal coping mechanisms will dictate the impact that each of the four has on an individual’s sense of self-worth. The key takeaway point is “self-esteem uniquely predicts people’s self-relevant emotional reactions to success and failure.” It is determinative.