Phase Two of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic has begun. More businesses are opening, the education system is slowly starting up again, and most people are beginning to socialize, albeit mainly outdoors, at the proscribed safe distance. Masks and folding chairs are in, total isolation is out.
What have we learned from Phase One, with its ongoing stream of confusing, frightening news about the virus and lockdowns? Here are five issues I’ve been thinking about, as a psychologist and person who likes to plan for the future. They’re listed in no particular order of importance because each of us has our own unique relationship with the pandemic.
- Coping with Uncertainty: As I often find myself telling clients, research has shown ‘uncertainty’ to be the most difficult of human emotions – and what, in recent memory, has made us feel more uncertain than the spread of the novel corona virus? We are all wired to predict and plan, and when placed in new, uncertain situations, with no black-and-white answers, most of us feel anxious, even panicky. We lean on our anchors, our daily routines, our comforting habits. When lockdowns began, we lost the habitual anchors of our daily and weekly routines, crucial to our sense of balance. Quickly, we found alternative activities at home that became our ‘new reality’ anchors. But as we slowly start working again, doing more errands, and seeing family and friends, what will happen to the three different Netflix series we started watching, the daily home-cooked meals from new online recipes, or the bi-weekly Zooms with our extended families abroad? Our new anchors will be gone. Lesson: It’s good to cultivate flexibility, now and always. Flexible minds are healthier minds. If we were able to create new routines during lockdown, we will do it again as restrictions roll back.
- Living in Fear: During normal times, most of us are motivated by desire. Once we get our obligations out of the way, we ask ourselves, “What do I want? What do I feel like doing now?” But during Phase One, the normal human aspiration to enjoy life was replaced by a fear of danger. We were told that staying home in the sole company of those we share our households with was the only way to be safe. Many of us developed a fear of human contact. Last week, I started seeing my two preschool-aged grandchildren again, and couldn’t help hugging them. Normal enough. But when I got home, fearful of infection, I immediately threw my clothes in the laundry and took a hot shower with lots of soap. Probably an overreaction. But how many of us can honestly say that we’re not a little bit afraid of every human being crossing our path as we start to make our way back into the world, even with masks? Lesson: We have to modify our fear, dial it down to reasonable caution. It’s time to get out and start doing more things we enjoy without viewing our fellow humans as potential death threats.
- Changed Relationships with Loved Ones: None of us will ever forget Passover on Zoom this year. But that was just the most dramatic example – sharing a meal, any meal, with family and close friends was a part of life we used to take for granted. Somehow, we all adapted to the (temporary) suspension of flesh-and-blood relationships with many of the people we love. For those of us with relatives and friends far away, Zoom may have even brought us closer. But when will it be time to shift the balance back to the ‘here’ in the here-and-now? Three-dimensional interactions are important to all of us, and absolutely essential for little children. They don’t understand that a face on a screen is really you, and an air-hug, no matter how heartfelt, can’t match the sense of warmth and security a real hug gives. Lesson: In spite of our marvelous technology, we are wired for live interactions. Without them, adults feel a bit empty, and children’s social and emotional development is compromised. So let’s try to get back to them, let’s make them a priority…safely…as soon as we can.
- Slowing Down: Before COVID-19, most of us moved around a lot more than we did during Phase One. We were busier, our lives were sometimes hectic, even frenetic. Our bodies pumped out lots of adrenalin. Then…the sudden slow-down. We humans naturally seek homeostasis, and after a couple of weeks into Phase One, our systems adjusted to ‘the new normal’ of sleeping more, spreading out our tasks to suit the kinder time constraints, finding projects that pumped us up enough to avoid the sluggishness (and feelings of depression) that loss of adrenalin can bring. But now, in Phase Two, we can get back to some shopping off the Internet, and soon the parks and beaches will re-open. Some children may go back to school, and many people on forced vacation will start working again. Lesson: Each of us must continue to recalibrate, finding our internal homeostasis and sense of mental and physical balance in a constantly changing external world. Wouldn’t it be great if COVID-19 has given us a re-start? Phase Two might be a chance for us to find the right activity level, instead of automatically accepting that scurrying around all the time is inescapable.
- Stimulation – Maybe Less is More: Related to point 4 is the deluge of external stimulation we dealt with in our pre-COVID-19 lives. Many of us struggled with stress-related anxiety, sleep difficulties, and a myriad of other physical and mental consequences of too much ‘stuff’ coming at us all the time. Several clients have recounted stories of children who were either unhappy or very dysfunctional in their large, noisy school classrooms, rushing from that environment to their after-school ‘chugim’, chocked-full of demands, competition, social pressures – sometimes needing medication in order to fit in. During Phase One, I heard stories of such children calming down, actually losing their symptoms, under the enforcement of a softer, less demanding environment. Let’s be honest: aren’t some of us adults also going to miss the relative mental quietude of Phase One? Lesson: Let’s not allow ourselves, or the children we care about, to automatically accept the high stimulation level we were exposed to before COVID-19. Maybe we don’t have to be ‘on’ all the time. It’s important to remember the quiet moments of simple pleasures we had during Phase One, and not throw them out the window when our previous hectic lives start banging on the door. Maybe classrooms really can be smaller, maybe kids can sometimes still play in their rooms or do home projects with their parents after school.
Wishing all of you a soft and steady landing back into the world, hoping it has changed for the better…at least a little.