Feeling helpless in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic? 4 principles of self-determination can help you regain control

The Omicron wave seemed to come like a rising tide – slowly, then suddenly, in all directions and all at the same time. Within the health system, skeleton crews face impossible workloads and moral distress.

Apart from that people feel the weight of things like deferred care, deprioritized essential workers, online learning and doomscrolling. People are sick not only with COVID-19, but also with isolation, inequality and polarization.

It should therefore come as no surprise that recent announcements of closed schools and restrictions renewed make some people think it’s just too hard to maintain.

But there is a way to get through the difficult stages of the pandemic. It is possible to counter impotence and empowerment by creating a sense of purpose and community amid the confusion of COVID-19.


As a researcher of social prescription – using health care visits as a starting point to reconnect people with community health promotion services – I want to share some steps we can all take today to get back to the basics of promotion health, using self-determination to help exert more control over our own individual and shared experiences.

Self-determination is an approach widely used in health promotion which arises from two distinct research bodies: in psychology, on how we build well-being in our own lives, and in political science, on how we together govern the things that are most important to us.

The idea, in both traditions, is that by applying only four principles to individual and collective levels, people can increase control and improve the conditions of their health and well-being.


When it feels like so much control has been taken away, making a small decision can help someone rediscover their autonomy.

You first have to regain autonomy: the ability to make decisions for yourself. When you feel like so much control has been taken away from you, making a small decision on your own can help you move from worrying about ‘what’s happening to me’ into action. on “what matters to me”.

In social prescribing, participants don’t wait for someone else to come up with a treatment plan. They express their own wellness priorities and are supported to better control their own health goals.

It can start with something as small, but healthy, like pick up a drawing pencil where to go for a walk in nature, or something more intensive like access housing assistance Where volunteer with others in your community.

Politically and at the community level, fostering self-reliance can be like ensuring that people have support to do so. local economic decisions, supporting local public health and community organizations, or by making sure vaccination campaign is both scientifically accurate and culturally significant.


A couple walk past an inspiring and colorful mural that reads 'Keep Going'
In times of collective crisis, people may feel helpless in the face of forces greater than themselves.

Next, we need to value competence: our ability to influence outcomes and to show ourselves and others what we are capable of.

In times of collective crisis, people may feel helpless in the face of forces greater than themselves. In social prescribing, participants are supported to reconnect with their own power, focusing less on what they cannot do and more on what they can, by do something they’re good at.

For communities, valuing competence may mean adopting a strengths-based approach or asset-based approach that recognizes the unique capacity and expertise within a community, such as relationships of trust, local ecological knowledge and an unknown training – rather than focusing on Community deficits.


Person seen from behind takes photo of mural of white dove dropping vials of COVID-19 vaccine
Regardless of our own constellations of ability, health, and privilege, we all have something to give that can positively impact others.
(AP Photo / Gregorio Borgia)

The pursuit of beneficence is closely linked to the feeling of competence: the feeling of having a positive impact on others. There is a demonstrable the glow of the donor who has just helped; whatever the individual constellations of ability, health and privilege, everyone has something to give.

In social prescribing, participants who express a desire to give back are supported to take the lead in volunteering to help others or designing and implementing new programs and services. At a broader level, fostering collective beneficence might look like prosocial communication approaches that remind us of how COVID-19 precautions help others, or opportunities to help others access vaccines and supports.


A cyclist walks past a painted mural depicting cartoon signs of people wearing face masks talking on the phone, checking out neighbors during the pandemic.
Feelings of loneliness and social isolation have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
(AP Photo / Eric Gay)

Finally, we must value the relationship: the feeling of connection and belonging with others and the world around us. Feelings of loneliness and social isolation increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, with health impacts and well-being.

In social prescribing, participants have the time and space to develop relationships: with a community connector who listens, with friends and family, or with other participants who may have something in common.

Collectively and politically, recognizing kinship can be like supporting policies that welcome people both as workers and caregivers, ensuring the shared protection of global vaccine equity or act on ecological and climatic pressures that increase the risk of zoonotic diseases.

Self-determination means deciding for ourselves, feeling proud of a job well done, giving to others and feeling like you belong. Social prescription cannot be everything for everyone, but what it has shown is that individual and collective well-being, psychological and political self-determination are deeply linked.

Starting with a phone call, a walk in the park, a poem, or a gift makes a difference and can help kick-start the ability to get through these tough times – together.

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