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Anxiety

The Third Month

The regrets and possibilities ahead of us.

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We have undergone a wide range of experiences and emotions in lockdown during the COVID-19 disaster. Many of us have felt anxiety, disbelief, hyperactivity and productivity, anger, and existential dread, as well as resignation and the emergence of new routines. Tragically, an increasing number of people have fallen ill, lost income and job security, and experienced the death of loved ones with whom they could not be present at the end. There is no new beginning yet, even as there are signs of change as states across the U.S. slowly start to reopen more businesses.

Despite the reopening plans in many states, without a vaccine or treatment, a large percentage of people in the U.S. are now entering a third month of staying home and social distancing—almost a quarter of a year. Imagine learning in January that you will spend a good part of 2020 homebound. It would have been inconceivable. In the face of this reality, we have proven our adaptability. But that adjustment has its price. With each passing day, negative experiences can compound and take a toll—as seen in the reports of despair and increasing incidents of abuse and maltreatment in households. It does not help that the harsh politicization of public health and economic decision-making leads people to very different conclusions about risk and the right approach to protect our country. In these next few months, we are tasked with making our own decisions about what risks we are willing to take as different parts of the country start opening up.

How do we stay on top of our well-being and mental health as the weeks and months go on? How should we check in with ourselves psychologically? I had an open discussion with a group this past week of people of all ages who are working from home. The energy was extremely low and everyone rated themselves as highly stressed. The fact that so much time had passed without resolution had begun to grate on them. “Enough already,” was the sentiment, but everyone knew they had an obligation to keep the spirit up. I could tell this was harder and harder to accomplish, even under the privileged conditions of being able to work safely from home. That conversation got me thinking about what could make a difference right now, as we enter a third month of living with the coronavirus.

In this third month, we feel more impatient to return to “normal” and it becomes easier for many of us to let our guard down. We have lots of difficult decisions in front of us as we weigh well-deserved pleasure and our need for connection over self-protection and reducing community risk. Pandemics can end socially—when the population decides to no longer live in fear—long before they end medically. I believe this is an essential moment to take stock of our thoughts, actions, and relationships.

We need to look at what meaning we give life and what changes we have instituted, not just view our decisions as choosing between deprivation versus fun, or summer loosening versus winter sheltering. No matter what one’s situation is—whether living alone, in a partnership, with kids or in a multigenerational household—we need to spare precious moments to think and reprioritize during this time. Don’t let this crisis go to waste. It may sound glib, but I mean it sincerely. Under normal circumstances, we are a busy nation, and being busy holds status. But now, many people have adopted a slower pace, have fewer distractions, no commutes, and a lighter social calendar. Time and space have a new meaning, a more rooted one.

Our routines have been entirely disrupted, and that led at first to a great deal of discomfort and confusion. I wrote a piece here the week lockdown started in most states on flexibility as an antidote to anxiety and rigidity. I suggested not to focus only on the loss of freedom and security, but to build new skills, perspectives, and approaches. Most writing at the time was about anxiety and loss, but I wanted to suggest ways to build new competencies. I was surprised by how frequently the post was read and shared and was glad that it spoke to people in that very moment of significant hardship. After nearly three months in, it is a good moment to ask whether the time of social distancing has led to new priorities, reflections, and activities.

One observation is that stress often leads us to fall into routines. This is understandable, as stability and predictability often help soothe our anxiety. I have noticed with my patients, family, and friends that at first there was a big adjustment—a mix of negatives and positives. There was a definite sense of living through historic times, and needing to get through this individually and collectively. But what I also noticed was that new routines were established quickly. What was fluid at first soon became routinized: the time to get up (or not), cook, and eat, the ways to communicate with friends and family, the movies to watch, the news to take in, and the space to inhabit. Are we such creatures of habit that after a few weeks we establish our routines under new conditions and soldier forward? Probably. In psychological terms, this is the need for control that reduces stress. We can’t control enough of the outside world, but we can control the smaller world around us. However, these routines often lead to fewer deliberate and mindful improvements in our lives. They become habits and foreclose the creative forces that crisis allows.

Just look at the enormous creativity that has emerged in these past two months—the articles, at-home concerts, and burgeoning of sites with resources for managing through this time of uncertainty. There were changes to systems and organizations that were once so resistant to them: the Supreme Court deliberating over video, Congress allowing distance voting, employers embracing work from home, insurers reimbursing telemedicine, schools instituting distance learning and so much more.

How are you using this disruption for something positive? Think now from the perspective that this pandemic will end one way or another. When you look back, will you think that you used this time well? What did you learn? What skills did you try out? Have you communicated more openly with people you are close to, or want to become closer to? Did you explore something new—such as books, music, shows, and recipes?

The list is very long and these changes can be big or small. What is essential here is not the specifics of what behaviors and feelings you tried, what you kept, and what you discarded. What matters is that you allowed yourself to be curious, observed yourself under these new conditions and surprised yourself.

To do this, we have to exercise flexibility and to do that we need to start in small ways in our homes in this third month. Have you prioritized moving your body, exercising, and practicing balanced eating? How are you asserting your voice about what you want and need lately? Are there people you have been neglecting but would like to stay in contact with? Assess the things that you value, what role they play in your life, and how you can make small steps to adjust and to listen to people around you, despite being distanced from them physically.

There are many ways in which we can practice these new priorities. You could learn about your family by asking elders in the family to tell you about their past—you will be amazed at what you will find out. Or just take a pencil and doodle and see what where the images will take you. Or remember and write down a dream and see whether you can make any sense of it. There are so many ways you can break routines, you just have to see the usefulness of it. You can do this with any chore you perform by just unpacking your groceries differently and placing things in new patterns. These habits may be better, and if they are not, you can easily return to your old ways. Just challenge some habits and deal with the imperfections and experimentations. When you do this alone, with a partner, with family, or with your children, you are actually supporting your sense of living, and most important, you will be preparing psychologically for thriving in the future.

There is still time for course correction and each and every person can aim to adapt flexibly and to reconfigure their actions to work towards psychological wellness. Despite the pain, anguish, and exhaustion, this practice can channel some of your individual energy into making this a time of growth and possibility.

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