A year in ... one psychologist's reflections.
Pamela is a Registered Psychologist in Camrose, AB, Canada. She has a thriving private practice and teaches yoga, the enneagram and a variety of workshops on psychology and spirituality.
Thirteen months into the Covid-19 pandemic it seems our world is a daily mix of hesitant optimism and unrelenting bleakness. Perhaps this is how life always is, but a global event of this proportion makes the struggles of human life louder, more highlighted. The drone of the pandemic plays on repeat as if through a megaphone in our days. Whether through overheard conversations at the grocery store, the noticeable lack of choices in our activities or the chatter of our own brains mulling the topic again and again, it is difficult to ever leave the context of covid – 19. Over the last year I have worked with many dozens of different people in my clinical practice as a psychologist and had almost as many private conversations via zoom, phone, text and campfires (note; these conversations are largely localized in a rural Albertan context). Try as we might, it is inevitable that we circle around to pandemic related topics and its effects. What follows is a synopsis of key themes about the effect on wellbeing that have repeated multiple times in these conversations. I offer it hopes that it may identify and normalize some of your current experience.
Grief: That malaise you carry. The low energy. The heavy blanket across your shoulders. In my experience as a clinician, grief presents in many forms and is one of the most subtle causes of depression and other mental struggles. We often think of grief as related to death or loss of relationships but it can be so much broader. This past year we have lost lifestyle, activities, businesses and relationships we’ve cultivated over potentially many years. Importantly we have lost IDENTITIES that we had developed through these very things and the effect of this is tangible. The cloudy sadness is pervasive. And how do we grieve? A funeral for our pre-pandemic world? Soothing sentiments from others who are experiencing the very same loss? Part of the problem is the loss itself, the other part that we don’t have a frame of reference through which to process it.
What you can do: Acknowledge grief for what it is. Name what you miss, talk about it with loved ones. We reminisce about stories of the “good old days” when a person passes why not when a whole way of life passes? There may indeed be a renewal of life when the pandemic ends but certainly things will not ever be exactly the same again. Feel it.
Lack of social mirroring: Feeling more insecure than usual? Unsure of yourself? A bit more self critical? In sociology there is a term called the “looking glass self”:
“The looking-glass self describes the process wherein individuals base their sense of self on how they believe others view them. Using social interaction as a type of ‘mirror’, people use the judgments they receive from others to measure their own worth, values, and behavior.” (https://lesley.edu/article/perception-is-reality-the-looking-glass-self.)
With the expectation of social interactions being kept to a minimum there are many people I’ve talked to who have seen only a handful of close contacts over the last year. We come to know ourselves partly through self reflection but also by how our personhood is reflected by others. It is no wonder people are questioning their worth, identities and value! These things are defined, at least in part, by the social interactions we have – be it through one to one dinners, drinks and coffees but also through larger social gatherings like sporting events, live music and potlucks.
What you can do: Even distanced or masked interactions help! Facetime and zoom conversations can still be helpful and many people find them ok for now. Try writing letters to loved ones, it can be more intimate. Find ways to support others, send them supper, drop off a coffee, leave a love note on their car. Meaningful human interaction can come in many forms.
Disorientation: Every time we get used to some fluctuation in the pandemic scene it changes. Restrictions lift, restrictions are put back in place. One article says this, another says that. I’ve heard people talk about this as constant “recalculating” our realities. This constant seeking of a way to anchor in our new reality takes a significant amount of energy. It is the same with decision fatigue: “Do I take a chance going out for supper? What does that look like socially to my peers? I really need to do something enjoyable … or should I just throw on another show?”. Of course this decision fatigue goes far beyond the smaller decisions to questioning the sustainability of your business, whether you should go in to the office or stay home and the viability of long range planning of any sort including jobs or vacations. Orientation is a significant marker of mental wellness. Without the ability to orientate our nervous systems go into overdrive looking for the “ground” and when we can’t find it we can become anxious, angry or shut down. With no timelines or consistent prognosis of the future it can be very difficult to feel safe in our worlds.
What you can do: One thing is for sure - life is change. The one constant is flux. Buddhists know this well and have taught it for millennia. The more adaptable we can be the more likely we are to maintain mental health. Our evolution has depended on it! If we get stuck on how things used to be we won’t find new ways of being in an ever changing world. Find routines and daily comforts that give you a sense of safety and security. Let go of the belief that we can find a fixed reality. It was never really the case anyway, the pandemic has just highlighted this.
Facing ourselves: Its not all negative folks! This year we have lost many of the ways we distract ourselves … from ourselves. People have had to become more still than I’ve ever seen in my generation of continuous busyness and productivity. I’ve noticed that those people on a path of some sort that includes seeking understanding and insight have done well with this “halt”. Having to face ourselves without distraction have allowed many people to sort through issues, needs and wants in ways not afforded us previously. Some are letting go of significant patterns, re-evaluating who they are and what values they hold and reconstructing reality more in accordance with new or deeper values.
What you can do: If you can’t find a sense of being settled, its possibly because you aren’t meant to be. Let your soul be stirred and allow something new to emerge. Ask: What am I feeling right now in life? What seems to be changing in me? Am I feeling anything I’ve not felt before? Give yourself space to really question and allow what may want to be known inside.
Self care practices are stagnant: I don’t know how many times I’ve had the conversation about how usual activities that bring a sense of well-being are not helpful right now. Yoga, fitness, reading and other self care practices do not seem to have the same salience as they did when things were “normal”. I believe this is because 1. We are facing the existential – this is about finding a worldview large enough to hold our current reality not just emotional regulation 2. You can’t expect to fix something this big. Sometimes the best we can do is allow the deep discomfort of our time to vibrate through us as an experience. When we cease fighting our inner experience that inner experience has space to shift 3. Those self care activities were previously held in a context of ebb and flow. Pre-pandemic we would flow into engagement with the world then ebb back into “recharging our batteries” through a variety of hobbies, interests and practices. This created a potentially satisfying balance that gave meaning to both the ebb and flow. With one part of this equation changed, the whole system is overturned.
What you can do: Again, let yourself be stirred. Many have begun to indulge meaning systems such as philosophy, spirituality and depth psychology to help make sense of the world we live in. Try all new types of activities and hobbies. We are novelty seeking creatures, its how we learn. Without having access to public novelty its important to seek things “outside the box” on your own or loved ones in your bubble.
Narratives abound: Further to my last point we are clamouring for meaning. Some turn to science for a meta-narrative. Others to philosophy. I’ve seen a significant resurgence in traditional religious thought. And of course there’s all the theories! Our social media is flooded with such theories. Be gentle with each other, we are trying to find stories that make sense of our world and help us to orientate and potentially find light in the darkness. When we are stressed, rather than feel the stress, we will come up with rationalizations and even denial to help us reduce the weight of the stress we face amidst the pandemic.
What you can do: Sometimes getting caught in stories is a classic example of emotional avoidance. Instead of feeling and experiencing the difficulty of the pandemic we jump into our heads and try to explain it away. This is a common coping mechanism and we certainly need a way to “map” what we see going on around us. But when our stories are fuelled by emotional avoidance we tend to get further and further from reality. Spend as much time feeling and breathing into the stress in your body as you do making sense of the world in your mind. Question the stories you anchor in and consider other possibilities. Mental health problems can often surface when a mind is over fixated on a particular narrative.
Small things: I have never enjoyed my chai in the mediocre spring temperatures Alberta has to offer more than I have this year and last! Some people are finding that the only way to cope with the loss inflicted by the pandemic is to seek and find new things that bring momentary peace. The deep appreciation for an outside hangout, good take out, fun zoom conversations, pets, acts of service from loved ones, grandparents and so much more. It takes a certain amount of acceptance and letting go to find momentary peace. Moving beyond all ideas of what we think should be allows us to sometimes experience the goodness that “IS” and can be found if we tap into the appreciation that lives inherently in every human soul.