Two months into Canada’s stay-at-home orders and social distancing, it’s hard to picture how this will end. In a sense, it feels like every monotonous day is crawling by, but it’s also hard to believe we’re already nine weeks in.
Things around the country are starting to re-open, in fits and spurts. B.C. is telling people they can date again (if they’re careful), hair salons and museums are opening up in most of Alberta, and laws are starting to loosen on retail stores in Ontario.
But what does moving into the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic actually look like? And how can we ensure we’re equipped to to deal with it emotionally?
This is a different conversation than the one about people working on the front lines of the pandemic. For medical workers rushing to save lives, grocery store employees sacrificing their own health to keep people nourished and comfortable, and social workers who are up close with illness and death on a daily basis, and for other essential workers of all kinds, coming out of the pandemic might mean facing extreme post-traumatic stress.
But for the rest of us, who are lucky enough not to be directly impacted by COVID trauma but who are still struggling with the day-to-day under these scary and chaotic circumstances, the uncertainty in this next phrase of the pandemic might be hard to make sense of.
It’s likely to bring about stress and confusion, occupational therapist and psychotherapist Andrea Sadler told HuffPost Canada.
But Sadler also emphasized that there are ways to stay resilient, and can build up coping mechanisms. Learning how to cope with difficult situations is a skill we all need right now.
What will be be hard about this next phase?
The directions are going to be much less clear
Up until now, we all pretty much understood what it was we were supposed to be doing. The “new normal” of living under lockdown wasn’t always easy to adjust to, but its rules were straightforward: stay home, stay safe. We all knew to limit our trips outside, to work at home if possible, to adopt physical distancing rules, and wash your hands.
That certainty brings with it a kind of relief: we know how to stay safe, at least in theory.
But the gradual easing of restrictions is based on a much less clear idea, and it’s unfolding in a much less obvious way. And it brings with it a lot of questions that no one really know how to answer: How can teachers in Quebec or daycare providers in Alberta convince young kids to maintain distance from one another? Why are garden centres in Ontario open when some provincial parks are not?
“Being given these very rigid rules to live by have actually provided people with a sort of a sense of safety and relief,” Sadler said. But moving forward, not knowing what we can do to keep safe is going to be a major source of anxiety, she predicts.
“Anxiety is the anticipation of a threat,” she said. “We don’t know what the world is going to look like as this unrolls, and that increases people’s anxiety. We don’t really know how to manage in this new world with this new information that we’ve been given.”
We’ll have to address some of the non-COVID scary things we’ve been putting off
The pandemic has essentially sidetracked the vast majority of our plans over these last few months. In many cases, things we were looking forward to have been postponed or cancelled: weddings, graduations, sports games, concerts, vacations.
But some unpleasant things have been postponed too, things some people may have been happy enough to temporarily avoid: surgeries, breakups, funerals. But we’re going to have to start dealing again, and that will be hard. Even something as seemingly minor as a deferred dental appointment might bring on anxious feelings.
“People fear dealing with these things, and we haven’t had to,” Sadler said. It’s likely that those pre-existing anxieties will be heightened, she said, in addition to all the other pandemic anxiety we have. Basically, what was already a scary prospect three months ago might be even scarier now.
There’s a lot we’ll have to figure out for ourselves
Because the messaging from politicians and public health officials will likely become less and less absolute, a lot of that judgment and decision-making will be on us.
That’s not a simple idea — especially when the stakes are this high. People prone to agonizing over decisions, or second-guessing their choices, will likely have a hard time over the next month or so.
We no longer have the comfort of clear, universal rules for everyone, or even really looking to other people for guidance, given how different our circumstances are going to be from our friends and neighbours. Often, we want to match the behaviour we see in other people, Sadler said, but there likely won’t be a lot of uniformity in how people behave moving forward.
“I think that’s going to make us wonder if we’re always putting ourselves in unsafe situations when we have to make our own decisions,” Sadler said.
And, it might be hard to a lot of us to understand those choices from other people, as well. The tendency to judge what other people are doing will be hard for some people to manage. Some will feel anxious when it doesn’t seem like the people around them are taking the situation seriously, even if they’re doing what makes sense for them.
The world is a scarier place now
Although so much about the virus is still unknown, we’re all a lot more informed about it now than we were a few months ago. We’ve read about what it does to bodies, and we’ve seen the death tolls updated daily. We have to start adjusting to a world where we sometimes see each other and go in to stores ― and those situations now carry a degree of risk that wasn’t there before.
When we do leave our houses, Sadler pointed out, it won’t look the way it looked before. There’s something eerie about seeing everyone covering their face with a mask, about not being able to register someone’s expression as we cross the street to avoid each other. It takes some getting used to.
“The world looks a bit scarier right now, with everyone wearing gloves and masks,” Sadler said. “It’s harder to navigate other people’s expressions, and relationally be able to engage with people.”
But like many other parts of what’s happening now, it’s something we have to adjust to: “I think that that has now become a new part of the world.”
How to build up resilience despite all of that
Given all these factors, there are still things we can do to make our day-to-day feel a little less terrifying, Sadler said.
Understand what you have control over and what you don’t
This can be one of the hardest things to do, but it’s also one of the most important.
Part of what’s scary about the pandemic is how little control it gives us. But, if you recognize that all that’s in your control is your own behaviour, that fear can dim down quite a bit. It’s still in your power to do everything you can to keep yourself safe. You don’t have an obligation to participate in the world re-opening right away if you don’t want to. You don’t have to start going into retail stores, or send your kids back to school if you’re not comfortable doing that. In most cases, you can refuse work that feels unsafe.
“We don’t have control over how the world unrolls,” Sadler said. “But we might have control over how we live in our home.”
It also brings back that idea of getting stressed out by other people’s choices. That just isn’t productive, because there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t control that your friend, say, wants to go into open stores as soon as possible. But, you can control how much physical contact you have with that friend. You can’t control what measures other people take, but you can control your own.
Stay physically grounded
We’re living in a state of unknowns. It can easy to spend a lot of time speculating about what might come next, and fearing the future. Or mourning the past, and the way things used to be. But we should try our best to avoid those urges, Sadler said, and one way to do that is by focusing instead on our physical, bodily reality.
“Grounding yourself in your own body is really helpful thing to do,” she said.
This involves accepting our discomfort, she said, “noticing how I feel being grounded in my body, in the here and now, without kind of getting too far ahead into, ‘What’s it going to look like?’ Because we don’t know.”
Grounding exercises like taking ten slow, deep breaths can help you feel your body and stay in the present moment. It can also help with anxious thoughts.
Another benefit of focusing on how we feel physically is that it can remind us how lucky we are to have our health. Our bodies are keeping us alive in an unparalleled time of stress, and that’s something we should be grateful for.
Think about what’s important to you
Being able to adapt the things that are important to you, so that you can make them work during this time, is another significant part of this process. Gym rats might have found an online workout class they love, or downloaded the Peloton app. People who really miss having dinner with friends might have regular Zoom check-ins, or more phone calls. Some people need to schedule in a little alone time, even during a pandemic.
“We all want to live according to what’s important to us,” Sadler said. “And if life completely changes, and we were able to still do that,” then we’ve really mastered something important.
Being resilient doesn’t mean being perfect or being ultra-productive all the time. It just means learning to roll with difficult changes.
We all know what our values are, and what we need to live a happy life. Making decisions for ourselves according to the things we value most is one of the most important the ways we can stay happy.
Think about how much you’ve adapted already
The last few months have been unlike anything any of us have dealt with before. But a lot of us have already started doing what Sadler describes: coming up with new traditions, and finding ways to celebrate or grieve or connect in isolation.
We won’t be living in a world without the coronavirus for a long time. But learning to live alongside it is something we’ve already been doing, Sadler said.
“I think we underestimate our resilience.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article depicted Rouge National Urban Park, which — though a national park — is not open to the public as of May 15, 2020. The picture has been replaced.
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