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  • Writer's pictureDr. Stefanie Tweedly

Living In and Through a Pandemic: How to Cope with Life as Things Stand

Beginning in March 2020 our lives as we knew them ceased. Our society shut down to some extent or another. Our normal, everyday routines were no longer possible. Even simply going out for the basic necessities brought with it uncertainty and stress that was unique,

including scenes that seem to be from a movie as we’d never seen such things in our formerly comfy society. We felt confused and helpless. We, by definition, experienced trauma.

We made it through the initial intensity that the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it by hunkering down, or waiting it out. We comply with the stay-at-home orders, we go out only when necessary, we wear masks in public spaces, we sanitize, we forgo so many things. At least some of the things we forgo are things that are important components of maintaining our mental health. We continue to do this because we are conscientious and we want to keep ourselves and others safe. Most of us also continue to hunker.

We’re pretty amazing if you think about how long it’s been. How have we hunkered for so long? Well, we tell ourselves some version of “when the pandemic is over, then I’ll get back to normal life and do things just as I did before.” However, things are not going to go back to “normal.” We can’t go back; our society and each of us has experienced a trauma that has changed us. Our society is in the process of changing, as are we. This process of change will unfold over the course of time and no one yet knows exactly what will come, but one thing is for certain: things will be different. Different is not bad; matter of fact different can be amazingly good; however, us humans have this aversion to it…we resist it. So here we are, consciously or unconsciously, resisting the change, the different, the idea that things will not go back to how they were before the pandemic. To this end, we continue to hunker.

While it continues to be important to be conscientious and follow the recommendations of highly trained medical professionals, it is also imperative that we place importance on caring for our mental health. It is time to shift from hunkering to actively participating in recognizing and honoring what we need to care for our mental health as things are now. Below are some tools to help you begin to heal from the trauma of this pandemic and shift your focus toward caring for yourself and your mental health.

Acknowledge how you feel about the situation. We experienced the emergence of a pandemic. It was awful, it continues to be awful, and it forced changes you didn’t ask for and don’t want. It’s ok to feel angry, frustrated, sad, disappointed, etc. Take time to identify and understand the emotions you feel about what has and is happening, without judgment or being self-critical.

Acknowledge your resistance to change. Pretty much every single human experiences some amount of resistance to change, particularly (and understandably) when it involves trauma. It’s a normal human reaction. Again, something awful happened and forced change you didn’t ask for and you don’t want. Take some time to acknowledge where you feel resistance to the changes that have taken place due to the pandemic, as well as to the idea that things will be different moving forward. As discussed above, try to do this without judgment or being self-critical.

Soften into the resistance. As you acknowledge your resistance, begin to soften into it. This idea of softening into resistance involves self-compassion. Self-compassion is demonstrating empathy and understanding to one’s self. In this situation, it is feeling empathy for yourself, the emotions you feel, and your resistances toward the situation. Expressing understanding toward yourself for all of these things, and, very importantly, encouraging yourself to move in a healthy direction.

Work toward acceptance of change. As you soften into the resistance through self-compassion, begin to work on allowing yourself to accept that things are, as they are. The pandemic happened, it forced change, and it means more change in the future. Things will never go back to the way they were. It is important to note that acceptance is not resignation. You may still have a desire to work towards change in some areas, acceptance allows space and energy for this.

Begin to “unhunker.” As previously stated, it is important for us to move from hunkering down and getting through to actively recognizing and honoring what we need to care for our mental health as things are now. While there is still a need for conscientiousness and the following of more strict safety protocols, we need to recognize that waiting for things to go back to normal is not an effective strategy for caring for our mental health at this point.

Revisit your needs and self-care activities. Begin to once again ask yourself what you need and how you can safely and effectively meet those needs. Many of your favorite activities, hobbies, or self-care go-tos are no longer available or they are not available in the way they used to be; however, reminding yourself of what those were can offer a jumping off point. It offers a place to begin to explore (or re-explore) options that you can use given the current state of things. Things that were once not need because there were more preferable options available may be good options now.

Consider seeing people in person, safely of course. Humans are very social creatures. We need people. Socializing is very important to our mental health. If the last 6 months have taught us nothing else, we have learned that virtual socializing does not quite fill our social needs the way being in the same physical space does. Hence the suggestion to consider seeing people in person. It’s very important to consider your circumstances (i.e. your health, the health of those you live with or care for) when contemplating seeing someone outside of your household. However, for most of us there are safe ways of meeting up with friends and family. For instance, it may be safe to meet when you take precautions such as meeting in an out-door space, practicing social distancing, practicing proper hygiene, and wearing masks. Of course, it is important to follow the guidance of medical professionals to assure proper safety protocols are being utilized.

We have lived through a trauma as a society. We have survived and we deserve to heal. Part of healing is allowing ourselves to shift from waiting for things to go back to “normal” to recognizing and honoring what we need to care for our mental health as things are now. This shift will be and needs to be gradual. So many things continue to be uncertain and that’s ok. We can care for our mental health even when things are uncertain; we just take it one day at a time and place importance on our mental health, as we do our physical health. We all can and will continue to move toward better being.

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