Why You're Feeling so Uncomfortable in Times of Corona
I'm sitting at home, in our apartment in Tokyo. I am holding my cell phone in my hand and my wireless headphones are plugged into my ears. I'm on the phone talking to my friends in Switzerland. While I talk and laugh, the white wall in front of me remains ignorant of my facial expressions. My son is jumping up and down, trying to tear my cell phone out of my hand. My hand is moving around, trying to escape my son's gripping hands so that I can maintain my social contacts a little longer.
It’s a cold January in the year of 2021. One year has passed since the outbreak of the pandemic. Europe is currently being hit by another corona wave, while here in Japan we are getting off relatively lightly. My friends and family in Switzerland tell me about the impact of the pandemic on their lives:
Edna *, a successful artist, had planned to go to America by ship in 2020. Chicago, Mexico, around the world and then to Prague. Instead, she enjoyed the archaic landscape of the Swiss mountains. Compared to other artists, she is lucky to have her university jobs, she says. She is doing comparatively well.
Angelica *, a nurse, describes to me the stressful everyday life in the hospital and how exhaustion is taking a toll on the healthcare workers due to the increase of sick leave.
My mother complains that we are so far away and that she cannot visit us. She misses her grandson.
I wanted to travel to Switzerland over Christmas to visit my friends and family, but then didn’t do it because I was afraid of the uncertainty of whether or not I could return back to Japan. Also, I thought that several corona tests and two weeks quarantine with a two-year-old were too exhausting.
We're all in good spirits, and yet, we want our old lives back. The pandemic is affecting people's mental health. It threatens important basic human needs such as social relationships or security. We try to cheer ourselves up by saying that we are still doing reasonably well compared to others. And yet, no one would have chosen this lifestyle voluntarily.Nobody wants the so-called ‘new normality’, which is anything but normal.
The discomfort that you are feeling during the pandemic is grief. Grief is an emotional experience, through which we process loss and adjust to change.
The effects of the pandemic cause many different types of grief. First, we feel that the world has changed. We know this is only temporary, but it doesn't feel temporary and we realize that things might be different in the future. We experience collective grief over the loss of normality and our usual routines. We adapt to the abnormal new normal.
Second, we mourn the loss of all missed experiences and opportunities throughout the past year. My friend, for example, could not go on her world tour, I have not been able to visit my family for a long time, loss of work, isolation, etc.
Third, we experience anticipatory grief, which relates to the uncertain future losses that may still lie ahead. How long will the measures last? How many more lockdowns will there be? Will face masks shape the street scenery from now on? How will the economy be impacted in the future?
Unsicherheiten und Verluste auf so vielen Ebenen.
According to the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, mourners go through five phases of mourning: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance:
“This virus does not affect us.”, “This virus does not exist”.
“The measures are disproportionate and unnecessarily restrict our fundamental rights.”, “You force me to stay at home and forbid me to do my activities”.
“If I stick to the social distancing rules for two weeks, everything will be better.”, “The virus is no worse than the flu.”.
“I miss my friends and family”, “No end in sight”.
“I have to find out for myself how I can deal with the pandemic.”, “What measures can I take to improve my situation?”, “I can wash my hands.”, “I can keep a safe distance.”, “I can learn to work virtually.”,“I can meditate, read, listen to music and do yoga so that I feel better”.
These phases are not a linear process and do not necessarily have to take place in this specific order. A phase can be skipped or a fall back can occur. However, knowing these five phases can help you to better classify your own experience and to better deal with grief.
A different approach to deal with the grief process is described by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut. They describe grieving as a process where we reconstruct meaning and restore coherence to the narratives of our lives after losing someone close. However, the regulatory process in the Dual Process Model involves not only confrontation with negative cognitions and working on grief: Avoidance of negative affect is also necessary to successfully overcome the loss of a loved one. The Dual Process Model' consists of two different orientations: ‘Loss Orientation', which deals with the experience of loss itself (e.g. crying, longing for life before Covid-19) and ‘Restoration Orientation', which deals with the acceptance of the loss and the adaptation to life after the loss (e.g. reorganizing life, developing new routines). Coping at any point in time is either loss oriented or restoration oriented.
The Dual Process Model is a dynamic back-and-forth process between these regulatory cognitive processes that is necessary for optimal adjustment over time. At times it might be too painful to confront negative affects and avoidance might be more beneficial. At other times confrontations with negative affects enhances working through grief and coming to terms with bereavement. Alternation between avoidance and confrontation is therefore essential for overcoming grief.
Thinking about the uncertain future can be scary. What will the rest of the year 2021 look like? How many more lockdowns do we have to endure? Will the vaccination bring the hoped-for redemption? Images appear before the inner eye, the heart is beating, it gets hot and cold, you sweat. Fear of the virus, of state authority, or of other restrictive measures have a paralyzing effect. In such an emotional state, where we fear the uncertain future, it can help to come back to the present moment: Name five objects that you can see in the room. What can you smell? What can you feel? Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. At this moment you are fine. You have food. You are not sick.
The events during Covid-19 reminded us that we cannot control everything in our lives. But there are things we can do to better deal with the emotional impact. For example, taking control of the things you can control will help reduce stress. Let go of what you cannot control and focus on what you can control.
Sometimes it can help to take time to become aware of your feelings. All feelings are allowed and have their justification. Do not say: "I am sad, but actually I am not allowed to feel sad because others are worse." Instead say: "I am sad and I need five minutes for myself now."
If you struggle to find your way around the current situation or if you feel the need to talk to someone in a non-judgemental environment, you can book your first free introductory session online with annahasepsychologie here.
If you feel depressed for a long period of time and experience intense suffering such as sadness, anger, denial, guilt, difficulty, accepting the current situation, or other emotional pain, you might suffer from prolonged grief disorder. You should then contact a doctor or psychotherapist in your area as soon as possible.