The Principle of Continuity: A Framework for Coping with Disasters Like Covid-19
3 stones balancing symbolizing the strength, stability, continuity needed during COVID-19Photo Credit: Stephen VanHove from Pixabay

While listening to an excellent podcast on the Tim Ferriss show from 4/2/2020, titled Tactics for Relationships in Quarantine, psychotherapist and best selling author Esther Perel referred to something called “The Principle of Continuity” – a concept used by disaster theory experts to help those facing acute trauma.

In the Journal of Community Psychology, Haim Omer and Nahman Alon describe it like this: “The continuity principle stipulates that through all stages of disaster, management and treatment should aim at preserving and restoring functional, historical, and interpersonal continuities, at the individual, family, organization, and community levels.”

The podcast discussion reminded me of how valuable frameworks are, especially during times of upheaval and heightened uncertainty, like these!  While life is much more uncertain than we realize all the time, the coronavirus pandemic really brings this into sharp focus, as we’re constantly being made aware of this dynamic reality, which can often feel overwhelming in this case.  Our lives have been changed quickly and drastically, with virtually no forewarning, resulting in much grief about what’s been lost, and anticipatory grief about what may come.  And, because the threat – the virus – is both invisible and new, it’s natural that levels of anxiety and fear are quite high at this time.

But, while there is much beyond our control now and throughout this lifetime, one important thing that IS within our control is how we choose to relate to what’s happening.  Having a framework (or many for that matter) is one way to work this process, giving us an opportunity to not only function as well as we can, but to also grow in wisdom and compassion as we navigate these unpredictable, turbulent waters.

While I’m no expert in the continuity principle, I did find it to be a useful framework for reflection during the coronavirus pandemic, and as such wanted to share my rough understanding of it below.  I highly recommend listening to the podcast to gain a better sense of how it works and also for the many other insights Esther and Tim discussed about how to cope with this crisis.

As Esther Perel notes, when a disaster like COVID-19 strikes, there is “mass loss of safety and security on a global level.”  In order to cope as effectively as possible, it can be helpful to look at these three domains of role, relational, and historical continuity that describe the principle of continuity:

1.) Role Continuity: role continuity, also referred to as functional continuity, refers to “the way you do tasks, solve problems,” says Perel.  It’s basically one’s way or style of functioning as an individual.  She uses the example of how Tim is a data-oriented person and accordingly, seeking out and analyzing data about the pandemic is a natural way for him to understand what’s happening.

Utilizing our strengths to address the unique challenges of the moment and continuing to fulfill our customary roles is both wise and grounding. Maintaining (or starting) healthy routines allow us to function, benefitting not only ourselves, but also those around us.  However, Perel also cautions against focusing exclusively on the practical – the hand washing, stocking up of supplies, etc.  Rather, she notes how it’s important during a time like this to also reflect on the deeper, existential concerns that naturally arise.

2.) Relational Continuity: this refers to “how people stay in touch,” says Perel.  We’re all social creatures, whether extroverted, introverted or somewhere in between. As Perel notes, “nothing will help us more in this moment than social cohesion and mutual support.”  She brilliantly notes how ‘social distancing’ is the wrong word, that this safety mechanism should more accurately be referred to as ‘physical distancing’ plus ‘social leaning.’  Works for me!

While connection has become more challenging for many, particularly for those who have limited social supports or healthy relationships to turn to, she states ““Maybe you don’t feel that enough people love you, but I can tell you, there’s a world of people out there who need you at this moment,”  encouraging people to seek out ways they can help others during these times – something that research shows truly benefits all involved.

3.) Historical Continuity: historical continuity speaks to “the stories we’ve grown up with, from our indigenous traditions, from our families, from our religious backgrounds and culture…stories of vulnerability and triumph that are transitional pathways to help us in this moment so that we can imagine a future,” says Perel.  In other words, reflecting on our family and cultural conditioning to gain insight into how we are relating to this current crisis.

For example, how did our ancestors face situations like these, what stories did they pass down about the adversity they experienced.  Perel refers to this as “the historical continuity that lives inside me, from which I’m organizing my reality.”  We can both draw on the strengths of our heritage, and be mindful of ways our past conditioning may be distorting our current reality.

In summary, this coronavirus pandemic, like all challenges, also presents us with an opportunity.  For me, I see this as an opportunity to get closer to those we love; to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and others in times of crisis; to increase our knowledge and sense of agency around both our individual health and the greater public health; and to recognize our mutual interdependence as a species and planet as a whole.  The podcast discussion between Tim and Esther is long (nearly 2 hours!) and full of gems, like the principle of continuity, that perhaps can serve as sources of guidance and comfort during these challenging times.  As always, seek out the advice of your personal professionals – your primary care physician and local mental health provider – for any concerns about your physical and mental health.

Sending all our readers at HealthyPsych well-wishes for peace and good health.

Sources:

Esther Perel — Tactics for Relationships in Quarantine (#418)

The continuity principle: A unified approach to disaster and trauma

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02506866


  1. A proactive approach is very important to combat anxiety in times of pandemic. It is about making most of our routine and to behave optimally. We can not afford halting routines because when the brain comes to rest it will make one even more anxious an empty mind is devil’s workshop. The best way is to

    1. Seek alternate or work of similar nature.
    2. Accept a lower pay scale in times of pandemic as there will always be an opportunity cost.
    3. Keep close ties with closed ones surviving the hard times along you.
    4. Stay resilient and assertive by indulging in mindfulness and meditation.

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