"Dr. M., it’s the unknown that’s just killing me.”
Emotions pour out of Rob like an overflowing pot.
I quietly listen, offering him space to express his emotions; anger, frustration, anxiety, and blended hopefulness and hopelessness, all tangled into one hot, bubbling, wet mess.
I sit quietly and presently, validating each feeling. Every single one of them. Because they are legitimate.
It’s a challenge not to blur the lines that as psychologists we are trained to keep sacred, but what I really want to say is, “me too Rob, me too.”
From those who suffer in silence, to those who are open to sharing. We all seem to be aching from not knowing what’s coming next in this pandemic.
While I can see a flicker of light on the horizon, the gnawing sense of another wave is preventing me from relishing in the hope.
Will there be another lockdown? Will the new strains suddenly cripple our health care system, spreading wildly through our neighbourhoods? The unknown is suffocating.
And at the heart of it is a nagging sense of perpetually feeling out of control.
I can empathize with the impact the seemingly never-ending pandemic has had on mental wellbeing because it’s hit me too. Hoping that my kids will finally stay in school, feeling anxious about my ageing parents, laying my grandfather to rest with a mere 10 of us present.
It’s not fair and it causes ongoing worry of when will it all stop.
The experience has left me feeling overwhelmed too. I’m not immune to these feelings. I also feel paralyzing fear at times. Because despite being a psychologist, I’m human too.
When we are used to living a certain way and then we experience a significant and unwanted shift, we are forced to adapt. While challenging, we do our best to figure it out and press ahead.
Adding to this is that because humans are simply not built to be in an ongoing state of high arousal or adrenalin mode, we become tired, fatigued and exhausted.
This is life in a pandemic. It’s a rat-race marathon with constantly changing rules. We literally don’t know from one week to the next what the next week will bring. We’re balancing a tremendous amount of uncertainty and change.
Yet like Rob (pseudoname), people don’t lower their expectations for making it through. They carry the same burdens and expectations they had of themselves and others pre-pandemic. They feel hopeless, out of control and like there is no end in sight.
This is not working and I see it every day. But that doesn't mean the buck stops here.
HERE’S HOW I MANAGE AND WHAT I ENCOURAGE IN MY WORK AS WELL
1. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable
This isn’t an easy feat, but if we can manage the scary signals, or false alarms, that our body is sending us, then we can also work on improving our ability to tolerate the uncertainty. You see, when we are feeling out of control, our body sends false signals that we are in danger. Our brain reacts by wanting us to remove ourselves from this danger. But, we don’t want to escape or avoid reality, we want to take a breath and use coping skills to make it through, day by day. Recognizing when and how to respond to our body signals, and learning tolerance to the discomfort they cause, can help us weather the storm until it passes.
2. Survive, not thrive
This year let’s strive for survival. Let’s focus on just making it through, no hold’s bar. With self-compassion and attainable expectations. Give yourself permission to have off moments too, sans the guilt. One tip, try to focus on what is working, rather than what still needs improvement. Tides will change, as will this course of life too, so set yourself to have the energy needed for the chapter ahead.
3. Talk, talk, and more talk
Talk it out. Talk to a loved one, a best friend, your pet, a trusted co-worker. A therapist. Anyone. It doesn’t matter. And if physically talking isn’t your thing, try writing instead. Journaling your thoughts can also work wonders. The important thing to know here is that, getting the anxieties and worries out of your head, will also help to declutter your mind to create space for things that you might actually find enjoyable.
4. Focus on what you can control
When we feel overwhelmed, it’s easy to get caught up in focusing on the things that we can’t control. Rather than worrying about when the pandemic will end or when will restrictions be lifted, try to focus your energy on getting through each of these phases. For example, how to stay connected with family and friends during this time, how to keep up motivation, or, how to ensure that a daily routine is being held to help with overall mental health. One way is by setting small daily goals that help with accountability and feeling accomplished.
5. Set a new reality for yourself
One of the most common reasons why it’s hard to sit with the unknown is because we struggle to let go of the life we had prior to COVID-19. We build feelings of resentment regarding what life should be like right now. It’s easy to make a comparison now given the state of affairs, but the reality is, we will never truly get back what was; good, bad, or ugly. So, instead of counting the days of when life will “get back to normal” let’s focus on setting up a new reality, likely a combination of what was, what is, and what can be.
So, here we are. One year into the pandemic with the prospect of warmer weather on the horizon and vaccines in reach, but also with the cloud of uncertainty of when our “normal” will come again. And while we can’t predict what the future will hold, we can concentrate on how we choose to handle this unknown.
Choose to be in charge or your reactions and actions. Choose to put your needs above the Anxiety bullying you. Choose to live your life despite the storm. Choose to plant the seed today for a hopeful tomorrow. That way, you will not only be prepared for your new “normal” to come but also for the unknown we are living through right now.
Because the unknown doesn’t mean you’re alone.
It doesn’t mean we can’t cool the water.
We can and we will.