“Let it rain on some days, Let yourself shiver on some cold nights,
So when it's Spring you'll know why it was all worth going through.”
― Sanhita Baruah
It may only be halfway through 2020 but it has certainly packed a lot in so far. Although some of us are worse off than others due to Covid-19, none of us has been left unscathed. Some of us have lost our jobs, some have lost ability to travel to see loved ones, and some have had major health effects from the disease itself, or even lost loved ones. Others may not have had a "major" loss such as the above, however have still lost some element of our personal freedom. And just as things seem like they are improving and going back to normal, many of us all of a sudden have been thrown back into a state of alert, or a state of lockdown. Add to this the constant impact of reading about it on social media and checking in with our friends and family about it, it's safe to say that most people are experiencing some degree of Covid-fatigue. Although most of us have shown a high level of resiliency, with many people relishing the chance to stay at home with family or using the time to learn a new skill, the lack of any certainty around the timing of when things will change takes its toll psychologically, physically and emotionally. Three broad categories of psychological reactions we may have in response to this situation are: adjustment difficulties, fear/anxiety responses and grief.
Fear reactions involve a number of physical and psychological responses that occur in the body when we are afraid of something. These are an evolutionary defense system which help us to survive when there is a threat to our lives. They are broadly described as the “Fight, flight or freeze responses”. Over the past few months, we have read about Covid-19 and for some of us, the fear has built up over time as we have seen the impact it has had across the world. As this fear builds up, we may respond with fight, flight and/or freeze responses. Some of us may be angry at authorities or at others for their responses to the pandemic, become hyper-vigilant at checking the news for updates, or stockpiling groceries. Some of us may channel that “fight” energy into the things we have control over, such as washing our hands and sharing articles on social media. Some of us may have a tendency towards a “flight” response, which could involve social withdrawal or avoidance of healthy activities such as exercise. Some of us may have a “freeze” response which could look like taking longer to implement behavior changes such as social distancing, or struggling to accept the changes to our situation. For some of us, the allostatic load of the constant worrying takes its toll in small difficult to detect ways over time. We may go through periods of fatigue in which we decide we don't care at all, to balance the worry we feel when we think about it.
It’s important to note that these reactions are completely natural and understandable. They are our bodies’ natural defense systems and have evolved for reasons of survival. However, sometimes we need to tame this system to keep ourselves healthy. We need focus on the ways of protecting ourselves that are in our control: e.g. social distancing and hand washing. But beyond that, we have to remind ourselves that we are keeping ourselves safe and find ways to calm and nurture ourselves. The cruel irony of our natural defense system is that if we stay in fight or flight mode for too long, then this can have a negative impact on our immune system. Exercise, connection, kindness, healthy eating and creative activities are some key suggestions of ways to tame our fight/flight system.
Adjustment difficulties are another natural response to the current situation. Adjustment disorder involves psychological, physical and emotional reactions to a stressful life event. These include feeling sad or overwhelmed by emotions, feeling anxious, difficulties concentrating, anger or irritability, problems with appetite or sleep, relationship difficulties, avoiding work or other commitments. It is normal to experience some of these difficulties when we have had a significant disruption to our lives. Some of us may already be experiencing some of these difficulties and may be struggling to adjust to these disruptions and changes to our lives. Some of us may have adjusted well to working from home and social distancing, only to feel uprooted and unbalanced with the idea of going back to socialising with people. It is normal to feel this way. However, if they create a significant disturbance to your life or last for more than one month, then it may be useful to talk with a health professional.
The final response that many of us have felt over the last few months is grief. Grief is complex and comes in many forms. We may be grieving what we have already lost, and we may also be experiencing anticipatory grief, which involves a sense of uncertainty about things to come and impending doom. Grief involves complex psychological, emotional and physical reactions. According to David Kessler, one of the authors of the well known theory of the five stages of grief, our grief involves five separate stages which may happen sequentially or may happen simultaneously or haphazardly. Firstly we may have denial, and may have thoughts such as “it won’t affect me”, “it’s just a flu”, "the pandemic is over", and so on. We may experience anger – at our leaders or at people seemingly doing the wrong thing. We may try bargaining: “if we lock everything down and everyone does the right thing then we can go back to normal sooner". We may experience significant sadness when we come to terms with the changes in our lives or when we struggle to see the end to the situation. The final stage is described as acceptance, when we come to terms with what is happening and find a way to regain control over our lives. The acceptance is difficult to come to in a situation such as this, in which it's difficult to find any sort of end in sight. These responses are all completely normal. However, this doesn’t change the significant impact they have on our lives. By understanding what we are going through, we can start to understand how to move towards acceptance and find ways to cope and even thrive in this situation. The most important thing right now is to look after ourselves and each other's mental health and well being. We can only get through this if we work together. We need to check in with ourselves and our community and talk about how we are feeling. Exercise, meditation, connection with loved ones using video technology, creative activities, fun, games, quiet time, relaxation, yoga, learning a new skill, cooking, listening to music and routine are all still so important.