Pandemic Principles: Responding to Anomie During Unprecedented Times

by Holly Dreger, LCSW

     In sociology, anomie is the term used to describe a social condition in which there is a disintegration of norms and high levels of uncertainty in a society. Durkheim identified this concept and noted that when things rapidly change in a society, often people may not know how to behave or respond. This raises levels of stress, frustration, anxiety, and confusion. It can even prompt feelings of powerlessness.

    Our current circumstances as we seek to gain homeostasis and balance during the COVID-19 pandemic is an in vivo experience of anomie. The routines of our daily lives have been disrupted, and in some cases, abandoned for something entirely different. Our sense of autonomy and ability to influence the outcome has also been restricted. Feelings of powerlessness have driven some to cope by hoarding supplies, buying up provisions in an effort to mitigate anxiety and fears about going without. We are a society that is waiting for the threat to pass.

    Experts in mental health are encouraging those who are physically distancing at home to keep a schedule, to step away from constant media consumption, to focus on “positives,” and to embrace the time this crisis has created. But living in a heightened state of arousal that is due to a pending threat can substantially tax the coping of any person, and social workers are highly susceptible to this stress overload.

    Many social workers are still at work, continuing to perform their duties during the pandemic. Social workers are called to step forward in service to their communities when the majority of other professions are instructed to step back. This places social workers directly in the midst of potential harm, at risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus. Social workers are also experiencing significant anomie because the “normal” way of doing business has been suspended.

    Many social workers are struggling to continue to serve their clients through technology such as telehealth. Many social workers are struggling with not being able to see their clients in their home, school, or office settings. As the anxiety elevates in our clients, social workers, too, are also feeling anxious, uncertain, and frustrated. Many social workers are new to the telehealth process, and many work for organizations that are rapidly rolling out new ways to engage our clients throughout the duration of the pandemic. We are struggling through the changes, too. We may be feeling less than competent, less helpful, and less effective.

    Social workers are feeling stressed. As colleagues, we are talking with one another, talking about our own feelings of anxiety and how we are handling it. We are discussing our frustration with how our agencies are rapidly changing how to move forward, what process to use, and when to use it. Sometimes, these updated protocols change multiple times throughout the day, raising stress levels and narrowing the emotional and cognitive bandwidth we each have. We find ourselves having to very quickly become knowledgeable and skilled with technology that we may not be very proficient with and feeling the pressure to get it done and get it done right. We may see our clients struggling with the technology, as well, many of whom do not either have access or they lack the skill set to properly navigate the digital world.

    As social workers, we are exhausted. One of my colleagues said, “I’m doing the best I can. I guess that’s all I can do.” This is a profoundly true statement, and this very acknowledgment produces substantial cognitive dissonance. As social workers, we strive for sustained excellence. During this time of rampant anomie, in the midst of helping our clients cope with their own fears and challenges, with new skill sets being demanded of us and new technology being thrust upon us to suddenly use, we can feel as if we are failing. FAILING. We can feel we are failing when we are “only doing our best.” As social workers, we want not just the best; we want excellence.

    So how do we sustain excellence during these uncertain times when the very foundation of what we are doing is shifting constantly?

    We can do this by challenging ourselves to redefine how we measure our excellence. We must change how we measure our job well done, and this must shift from doing the “best we can” to doing the “most we can do” to have a positive impact on the lives of those we serve. We cannot use the old measures right now, and perhaps we won’t fully return to those measures in the future. But we can provide the best possible care by responding to the needs not only of our clients, but of ourselves, as well.

    We must acknowledge that we are not going to get everything done each day, that we may need to triage the most important things and defer on those tasks that must wait. We need to ensure that we are acknowledging our feelings, our uncertainty, by taking a step back and labeling our feelings and thoughts, and must challenge ourselves to let them go instead of grappling with them like we are attempting to solve a Rubik’s Cube. We won’t be solving all of the problems, but we can facilitate healing with how we approach our clients and ourselves.

    We must also honor our limitations and prioritize rest. We tend to postpone the times of restoration for ourselves. It is essential that we shift our priorities and recognize that rest is sacred and healing. We need to be sure that we are reaching out to our own community, our own supports, so that we can continue to serve those who depend on us to lead them away from patterns of brokenness and illness.

    Football’s greatest coach, Vince Lombardi, once said, “After all the cheers have died down and the stadium is empty, after the headlines have been written, and after you are back in the quiet of your room and the championship ring has been placed on the dresser and after all the pomp and fanfare have faded, the enduring thing that is left is the dedication to doing with our lives the very best we can to make the world a better place in which to live.”

    We need to know it will all be okay. We have already won. We will rise and continue to make the world a better place to live.

Holly Dreger is a licensed clinical social worker who works full time with veterans. She has worked in the field of social work since 1998 in various capacities and treatment settings, both as a practitioner and as a field instructor mentoring new social workers. She has provided services in elder residential (nursing home), inpatient psychiatric, as an embedded mental health provider for the DOD, private practice, outpatient, and partial hospitalization. Dreger also worked as an adjunct instructor of psychology for Eastern Connecticut State University.