It is why you feel awful.
It was the end of the world as we knew it, and I was fine. That is what I told my doctor at my appointment a few days after our children’s school district extended spring break because of the coronaviruses. Several weeks after our state ordered stay-at- home, I said the same at my April 27 appointment. You can live your life if you pull yourself out of despair.
I am a science journalist who has written about infectious disease and medical research for nearly a decade. I was on fire, cranking out stories, explaining epidemiological concepts in my social networks, trying to help everyone around me make sense of the frightening circumstances of a pandemic and the anxiety surrounding the virus. I was barely keeping up with work while my kids were doing impromptu distance learning. It was frustrating to be stuck home all the time, savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay savesay I thrive in high-stress emergency situations. It is great for my brain. When my husband and I were stranded in Peru during an 8.0-magnitude earthquake that killed thousands, we walked around with a first aid kit to help who we could and to find food and water. I went out with my camera to document the destruction and interview people in my broken Spanish for my hometown paper.
In those early months, I and most of the rest of the country were using surge capacity to operate, according to Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota. Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems that humans draw on for short-term survival during times of stress. Natural disasters can happen over a short period. The disaster stretches out indefinitely.
I knew it was not going to last. It never does. I didn’t appreciate how hard the crash would be, how long it would last, or what getting up looked like.
I was not doing so hot by my May 26 appointment. I couldn’t get anything done. I was sick of the meetings. It was difficult to think with the kids around all day. I was trapped in a home that felt like a prison to me. I tried to conjure the motivation to check email, outline a story, or review interview notes, but I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t force myself to do anything for that whole week.
Masten says that the Pandemic has shown what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity. It has to be renewed when it is no longer needed. The emergency phase has now become chronic, so what happens when you struggle to renew it?
Either the next or the previous. Either the next or the previous.
I know about depression, but this was not one. It was, as I would soon describe in an emotional post in a social media group of professional colleagues, a combination of anxiety-tainted depression and an inability to concentrate. I spoke with my therapist, adjusted my medication dosages, went outside daily for fresh air and sunlight, tried to force myself to do some physical activity, and even gave myself permission to mope for a few weeks. I had already accepted in March that life would not be normal for at least a year or two because of the Pandemic. I couldn’t work, couldn’t focus, and hadn’t adjusted. Shouldn’t I be used to this by now? Either the next or the previous.
It wasn’t until my social media post elicited similar responses from dozens of high-achieving, competent, impressive women that I realized I was not the only one. My experience was a universal one and deeply human. Why should you be used to this by now? Masten told me that they are all beginners at this. This is a once in a lifetime experience. It is expecting a lot to think that we will be managing this well.
The phrase “adjusting to the new normal” has been repeated many times since March. How do you adjust to the uncertainty of the situation? The disaster was unprecedented.
Masten says that people may be experiencing a normal reaction to a pretty severe and ongoing, cascading disaster. It is important to know that it is normal in a situation of great uncertainty and chronic stress to get exhausted and to feel ups and downs. Masten says that this is an unprecedented disaster for most of us. It is not the same as a tornado where you can look outside and see the damage. For most people, the destruction is invisible and ongoing. Radical shifts in work, school, and home life are what most of us don’t have experience with, because many systems aren’t working as they normally do. Disaster recovery and military service people are facing a different kind of uncertainty right now.
How do you adjust to the uncertainty of the situation? Disaster and trauma research focuses on what is helpful for people during the recovery period, but we are not close to recovery yet. Masten says that people can use their surge capacity for short periods, but that they have to use a different style of cope with dire circumstances.
As a lifelong overachiever, I have felt particularly depressed and adrift as the months have dragged on. Understanding ambiguous loss.
Michael Maddaus, a professor of thoracic surgery at the University of Minnesota, was addicted to prescription narcotics after undergoing several surgeries. Maddaus was a high achiever until he couldn’t be, now he is a motivational speaker and promotes the idea of a resilience bank account. She says it is harder for high achievers. The harder it will be for you, the more accustomed you are to doing things. You get feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and those are not good.
Boss says that mindset is an American one. He says that his personal operating system had failed him on a more personal level. I had to figure out a different way of living.
Figuring out what is called ambiguous loss means figuring out what is unclear and lacks a resolution. It can be physical, such as a missing person or the loss of a limb or organ, or psychological, such as a family member with dementia or a serious addiction. She says that the culture is solution-oriented, which is a good way of thinking. It is partly responsible for getting a man on the moon and a rover on Mars. It is a destructive way of thinking when you are faced with a problem that has no solution at all.
The loss is ambiguous because these were all things we were fond of. Boss says that it is not a death, but a major loss. What we used to have is no longer with us.
Boss says that it is a loss of a way of life, of the ability to meet up with friends and family. It may be a loss of trust in the government. Our freedom to move about in our daily life has been lost. It is also the loss of high-quality education or the overall educational experience we are used to, given school closings, modified openings and virtual schools. It is the loss of rituals, such as weddings, graduations, and funerals. I have done my research and writing in coffee shops for most of my life, but that is no longer the case.
It is the same experience of grief as a more tangible loss, but it requires a bit of creativity to manage it. There are losses that may result from the intersection of the Pandemic and the political division in the country. Issues related to Covid-19 have become the final straw in ending relationships, whether it is a family member refusing to wear a mask, a friend promoting the latest conspiracy theory, or a co-worker insisting Covid-19 deaths are exaggerated.
Masten, Boss, and Maddaus offered some wisdom for our journey through this. There is a path to cope with a pandemic.
Radical acceptance is part of Maddaus’ approach. It is hard, he says. You have to accept that in your bones and be okay with this as a tough day, and accept that as a baseline. Accept that life is not the same right now.
Expect less from yourself. He says that acceptance doesn’t mean giving up. It means not fighting reality so that you can apply your energy elsewhere. It allows you to step into a more spacious mental space that allows you to do things that are constructive instead of being mired in a state of psychological self torment.
She says that people are having to live their lives without the support of many systems that have partly or fully broken down, whether it is schools, hospitals, churches, family support, or other systems that we relied on. We need to know that we are grieving multiple losses while also managing trauma and uncertainty. Masten says that research on burnout shows that many of us feel a sort of disinterested boredom. No one can function at full capacity with all that going on because of the other emotions.
Most of us have been told for a long time that we should expect more from ourselves. We need to give ourselves permission to do the opposite. Masten says we have to replenish and expect less of ourselves. We are in a period of self discovery, where do I get my energy? Do I need a lot of down time? It may take some reflection and self discovery to find out what rhythms of life I need right now.
Boss says that denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are major concepts in facing loss. Many people deny that there is a virus, that the number of cases is high, or that masks help reduce disease transmission. Understand the different aspects of grief.
Sometimes acceptance means saying we are going to have a good time in spite of this, such as when my family drove an hour outside the city to look for the comet. Accepting that we can’t change the situation right now is also a part of it. There is anger at those who deny, anger at those who don’t wear masks, and anger at those who wear masks. Boss says most of the bargaining is with scientists who hope to develop a vaccine quickly. Boss says that he hasn’t accepted any of the depression. I don’t know who you are.
Our new normal is always feeling a little off balance, like trying to stand in a dinghy on rough seas, and not knowing when the storm will pass. Boss says that we can either kick and scream and be angry, or we can feel the other side of it, and just have a couple days where you feel like doing nothing.
This approach may not work for everyone, but Boss says there is an alternative that many people find helpful in dealing with ambiguous loss. Sometimes it means embracing a bit of the irrational. Try to think both-and.
She says that if you stay in the rational, you will stress yourself more. The situation is crazy, not the person. The situation is pathological, not the person. For the families of soldiers missing in action in Vietnam that Boss studied early in her career, or the family members of victims of plane crashes where the bodies aren’t recovered, this type of thinking means thinking: “He is both living and maybe not.” She is probably dead, but maybe not.
She says that when you can’t change the situation, the only thing you can do is your perception. Boss says, “This is terrible and many people are dying, and this is also a time for our families to come closer together.” I am highly competent, and right now I am flowing with the tide.
You should look for activities that continue to fulfill you. It doesn’t mean denying the existence of the coronaviruses. Maddaus says, “You have to face reality.” How we frame reality can help us deal with it.
Masten says that when we are forced to rethink our options and broaden out what we think of as self-care, sometimes that constraint opens new ways of living and thinking. We don’t have a lot of control over the global Pandemic but we do over our daily lives. What is meaningful in life can be focused on in plans for the future. One of the frustrating ironies of the Pandemic is that so many of our self-care activities have been taken away: pedicures, massages, coffee with friends, a visit to the amusement park, a kickboxing class, swimming. When we are least motivated to get creative, we have to get creative with self-care.
Maddaus explains why it makes sense that creative activities like cooking, gardening, painting, house projects, or even building your own imaginary island can be fulfilling right now. The book The Molecule of More explores how dopamine influences our experiences and happiness, and describes the types of activities most likely to bring us joy. Since I missed eating in restaurants and was tired of the same old dinners, I began to subscribe to a meal-kit service. I hate cooking, but the meal kits were easy, and I was motivated by the chance to eat something that tasted more like what I would order in a restaurant without having to invest energy in looking through recipes or ordering the right ingredients.
There are two elements to those activities, a planning element and a here-and-now experience element. For Maddaus, it was simply replacing all the showerheads and lightbulbs in the house. He says it made him feel good. Maddaus says the brain deals with the world in two ways: the future and things we need to go after, and the here and now. We can use the elements of our natural reward system to make things that are good no matter what, instead of being at the mercy of what is going on.
Masten says social support and remaining connected to people are the most protective factors for resilience. Even when we are feeling down, we need to help others. Strengthen and maintain important relationships.
Slowly build your resilience bank account. She says that helping others is one of the win-win strategies of taking action because we are all feeling a sense of helplessness and loss of control about what is going on. Buying groceries for an elderly neighbor is one way to help others.
He says to start really small and work your way up. If you do a little bit every day, it will add up and you will get more and more motivated. We have to be gentle with ourselves and keep going.
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