Finding Light at the End of the Tunnel
Surviving the prolonged Covid siege.
Posted Aug 12, 2020
Five months ago, I wrote a pandemic-themed post in this mental wellness space thinking it would be a one-off.
A month later I wrote a second, figuring that was that.
Well, here we are. Damn.
The psychological trauma caused by this pandemic is unlike that caused by most other natural disasters. The Covid-19 pandemic is indeed a natural disaster, but different from earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, hurricanes, floods, or forest fires, this natural disaster is wider in scope. An earthquake lasts a few seconds to a minute; a hurricane, flood, or forest fire lasts anywhere from a day to a week or two.
Compare that to this pandemic: Although it is doing less acute damage to our physical infrastructure than an earthquake or flood, and although it is generally causing death more sparsely, the long-term impact on the economy and population will be far greater because of its global reach and protracted course. If other natural disasters are like hit-and-run accidents, this pandemic is more like a hostage situation. That’s one thing we’re all feeling right now: Our society has been taken hostage; we’re suffering through a prolonged siege.
Lately, I’ve noticed a shift in social tenor that accords with this siege mentality. I feel the shift in me, in my spouse, in my friends and acquaintances, and in my patients. I’d compare it to the feeling you get after traveling for a while through a dark and stuffy tunnel; you think you’re nearing the end, but round a corner and realize you still have a very long way to go. As individuals, as small groups sheltering together, and as a larger society, we’ve come to realize we’re not halfway through this tunnel yet — and it may get darker and stickier before it gets brighter and airier.
That much is clear. But what to do about it? Prior advice I have given in this blog space remains valid. Specifically, in my first post on this topic, “Combating a Mental Health Pandemic”, I emphasized the importance of adhering to the social contract forming the bedrock of civil society. I referred to this as “Social Vitamin C”: Courtesy, Consideration, Caring, Community, and Compassion. Sorrowfully, we can see evidence of a deficiency in this “vitamin” all around us now: in the spread of nasty comments and squabbles on social media, in the selfish flouting of public health directives intended to protect the general welfare, and in the proliferation of both small- and large-scale acts of real or threatened violence.
In my second post about the pandemic, “It’s Like Living in a Submarine”, I stressed the importance of maintaining a daily routine, keeping a regular sleep-wake cycle, setting boundaries between work and play, getting out of your home regularly if you can do so safely, daily exercise, remaining social, and not overdosing on screen-time and the negative news cycle. That too all remains good advice. I stand by it.
Now that it's clear we’re going to be stuck in this tunnel for a while longer, what other useful advice can I offer? I think this is a good time to emphasize the importance of staying focused on the future.
In my work as a psychiatrist, I am often struck by a peculiar viewpoint uniting those who are depressed. People who are depressed tend to place too much emphasis on the past and not enough on the future. For the severely depressed the “arrow of time” becomes reversed. What does this mean? Well, a person who is not depressed “sees” the arrow of time as pointing forward. That is, they view the past as static and the future as malleable. A non-depressed person may reminisce about past events, sometimes fondly or sometimes ruefully, but they know the past can’t be altered. If they are going to change anything, it has to be in the future. The future is where their “agency” lies, it is where they have the power to act, affect outcomes, and make things better.
In contrast, a severely depressed person sees the arrow of time in reverse: Instead of looking to the future as something they can change, they see the future as set in concrete. A depressed person typically feels trapped, they see their future as both inescapable and intolerable. They focus on the past instead and fantasize about changing that — they ruminate about past events and decisions they wish had gone differently.
I am not suggesting that everybody is depressed right now. Some individuals are doing quite well despite the pandemic and remain optimistic and cheerful. We are certainly not all ruminating about the past, but a haze does stretch ahead of us all to some varying degree. The pandemic has made the future unusually difficult to discern and predict. That makes it difficult to feel secure, to be proactive, to make positive decisions, to navigate in life.
Under these conditions it is tempting to withdraw and look away from the future, to decelerate or even come to a standstill, but it is crucial we not do so. We are stuck together in a long dark tunnel; to reach the end we must keep our eyes and minds, as well as our hopes and dreams, focused firmly on the road ahead.
One practical strategy that can help with this is to set goals. Now more than ever it is important for each of us to affirm a list of personal goals. It has been said before, correctly, that a goal is a dream with a deadline and a plan to achieve it. Each goal you set for yourself should be practically achievable, have an objectively identifiable endpoint, and come with a deadline. Some goals should be short-term, some mid-term, some long-term. Examples of short-term goals might be to increase your exercise routine every day over the next two weeks until you can jog for 30 minutes without resting, or to cut back on your daily calorie intake just enough to lose 10 pounds gradually over the next month, or to spend 10 minutes each evening this week writing an e-mail or (far better) a hand-written note to a friend you haven’t heard from in a long time. A mid-term goal might be to take an online college course, learn how to draw, or take lessons on a musical instrument you’ve always wanted to play. A long-term goal might be to enroll in an online advanced degree program so that you can get a better job in 2 years.
Whatever your personal goals may be, it is also important to write them down. Writing goals down transfers them from the world of fantasy to the world of possibility. After you’ve written them down, organize your goals into a list or onto a spreadsheet based on difficulty and projected deadline. Each deadline should reflect the length of time you realistically need to achieve each goal if you apply yourself with a plan.
Of course, that means you actually do have to come up with a plan to achieve each goal — write that down too. If you can’t come up with an actionable plan, then it’s not a good goal (at least not for now). In that case, set that particular goal aside and come up with another one in the same time frame (short-term, mid-term, or long-term) to focus on instead.
Once you’ve written down your goals, organized them, and come up with plans to achieve each one, then it’s time to get to work: Implement your plans, step by step, one by one, day by day. Be patient, but also be persistent. The more you do so, the more the road ahead will start to appear brighter and less hazy. Before you know it, you will discover that instead of being stuck in the doldrums, you’re slowly moving forward, making progress, and then accelerating and feeling pretty good.
That’s how we’re all going to get to the light at the end of this tunnel, together.