Right now, we’re being besieged by information on how to cope. Or rather, how best to cope and be at our best while coping. We’re being told how to minimize anxiety, improve mood, keep families busy, learn to craft, exercise on sofas and cultivate a sense of spaciousness in the pause of the pandemic. Therapists, astronauts, coaches, athletes, writers, celebrities and submarine crews are all offering a host of useful tools and insights on how to live in small spaces and tolerate uncertainty.
These are all very useful and we all need encouragement and resources right now. Unfortunately, to many, this also becomes an instruction: this is how you should be trying to be. We interpret these messages as commands to positivity, productivity and spiritual and personal growth. And we all know that never has anyone not felt under pressure when being told what or how to be, or deviant if they can’t fulfill those idealised versions of normality. Here are some of my thoughts on what might constitute a slightly more forgiving version of being-on-lockdown.
I think a more realistic and humane position would be to acknowledge that we’re going to feel a full range of feelings right now from downright despair to boredom to gratitude for the early spring birdsong. It would also be to acknowledge that we’re facing a devastating pandemic where people are dying, and many of our livelihoods may be in serious jeopardy – that we’re kind of locked up and we don’t know who is (literally) going to get out all in one piece or if we’ll be able to pick up the pieces.
Within that framework, we need to be able to give ourselves some kind of dispensation. That some days, Joe Wicks, careful diary planning and DIY might be holding us together. Other days, it might be chocolate and staring into space and having a good old cry. A whole range of emotional responses is called for and there is no right way to cope. It is also to be expected that we will fluctuate and that our worries and capacities to bear this situation will change day-to-day.
This pandemic is by definition a traumatic situation. It is a situation over which we have no control: powerlessness is the definition of a traumatic experience. Denial, dissociation and fugue are some of the ways we cope with the overwhelm that is the fallout of powerlessness. I think this is why professionals are urging us in any way, shape or form to create structure and have things we can control. This is excellent advice. However, it need not be an expectation, and might be reframed as a resource.
Furthermore, how we feel and cope will depend on how we are being impacted by the events around us. If we have a loved one who is ill or at risk, it is perfectly understandable that we would be in a different place than, for example, someone who is trying to home-school children while working remotely. And even then, our responses will vary greatly, as will our resources to cope. We all bring our own histories and support networks to the current situation.
We are also being called to tolerate others’ emotional fluctuations and varied ways of coping, and often in small spaces. This is hard and requires us to give ourselves and them the maximum amount of dispensation we can muster. If the Buddhists had designed a masterclass in radical acceptance, I think this would be it. There are some really useful ideas on how we might manage this. I like the perspectives of Esther Perel, couples therapist. But please adopt all ideas as ideas, not as directives.
The Thursday night ritual of clapping on the streets is about as close as we can get to some kind of collective outpouring. Many people have become quite emotional while participating and I think this speaks to something a bit deeper. It speaks to our need as a community to let some of what we’re carrying out and share this experience together. We know that collective trauma requires collective healing and perhaps an applause is the most British way we can voice this. Interestingly, I have noticed many people call out, shout or use an instrument to make their clapping louder. It seems to me that perhaps quite a sane thing to do might be to have a Thursday evening 8pm call to scream or cry or simply let loose how we’re feeling.
Under the current circumstances, it’s perfectly normal for difficult symptoms to flare up – for example, panic attacks, OCD, withdrawal, problems with eating and control: these are all coping habits, albeit ones with a fairly high cost. Our only job is to recognise what is going on and see if we might attend to and befriend the feelings we are trying to cope with. We might thereby expand the choices we have over how to offer ourselves comfort in our distress. Alternatively, if things feel too unbearable, you are not under any mandate to manage all on your own and there is no shame in reaching out for support. In fact, this might be the most superhero move you make.
I think another aspect that needs voicing is that some people are feeling a sense of relief that everything is now on pause and that the remit of what they’re having to deal with has reduced. For example, deadlines have been moved and social gatherings are acceptably avoidable. This position is completely understandable: if part of what has worried us is the pressure we feel to meet others’ expectations in the outside world, well then, an enforced retreat is of course, a refuge. Similarly with enjoyment. There is no shame in enjoying things right now or of preferring this version of reality to what has come before. For many people who suffer from low mood or anxiety, it is a huge relief that everyone else is on the same page and there is actually something to worry about instead of a slow-drip feeling of perpetual dread.
The bottom line is that no matter what meaning we may eventually construct from this experience, and whether it is lined with small pockets of enjoyment (and I hope it is) or not, there is no benefit in measuring how we’re doing against any external norms or imperatives. We may find the time and space to look after ourselves and each other better, or learn new things or contribute in some way. We may just hang on by our fingernails and not look down. We may do a bit of both. Our responses to this situation are all valid. We might prefer some responses to others but they are all still valid and belong. If there is one thing we might need to learn, it’s this, and to give ourselves permission for this to be so.