Coronavirus: dealing with change


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When I look at this outbreak – including my own responses to it – I see huge changes, and the struggle to accept those changes. So much reminds me of the work I have done in the past with grief. The enormity of what we face seems incomprehensible; I wake each morning hoping it has all been some terrible dream, and life will return to normal.

One of the challenges in dealing with this all is how quickly everything has changed. How is it possible to accept what was unimaginable a few months ago?

I see the responses familiar from grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally – hopefully – acceptance. I see my own denial (I limit how much I watch the news) as having a purpose: it helps protect me from the whole truth until I am better able to deal with it. Anger is natural too: so much of this is unfair. Bargaining may take the form of ‘if only I had…’, or even ‘if I stay indoors maybe this will be over quicker’. Depression is a part of this all too: this is a depressing situation. And the final part, acceptance, is what I want to explore in this post.

One of the challenges in dealing with this all is how quickly everything has changed. How is it possible to accept what was unimaginable a few months ago?

There is a surreal quality to a world that has changed so much, and in such a relatively short amount of time. Not only has it changed, but it also continues to do so. When trying to make sense of the situation today, or this week, there is now the awareness that things may well be different next week or month.

At the same time itself has become harder to track. The old ways we measured time – going to work, weekends, children going to school, lunch breaks, commutes – don’t have the same hold on us. How many of us have had to check what day of the week it is? We are living through a time that feels both as though it is timeless and could go on forever, and where there is uncertainty or dread about what the future may hold. Not having an end date to hold onto makes it all hard, too.

However, and this is important, we will, as a society, adapt and adjust. As time goes on will have more information, and eventually, less uncertainty as a result.

Learning to adapt and adjust

But how do we learn to adapt and adjust to these changes, and to a future we can’t easily predict? It is worth acknowledging that we have already started this process, with behaviours such as increased hand washing, social distancing, not touching our faces. Then with working from home, or going to work with new rules about contact, or with different tasks being asked of you. If you have children, they are no longer going to school and you may have been trying to navigate the world of online or home learning.

How are you finding these changes? They may be stressful, or difficult to get used to. Or maybe there is relief that you are safer at home, or can avoid other stressful situations.

It is worth remembering that even planned changes can be stressful – think of moving house, changing job, or getting married. Unplanned changes can feel overwhelming, and bring high levels of worry, stress, and anxiety. Added to this with the coronavirus outbreak are fears about health and mortality, social isolation and major changes in routine.

Finding ways to help feel more in control can help in dealing with the larger changes. We don’t have control over government decisions, but there are small ways in our day-to-day life we can feel in control. You can choose what time you wake up, you can choose a routine that suits you. Perhaps you will choose what you will eat today, or wear, or who you will call for a chat. If you are worried about your health, you could choose to ring your GP or necessary 111. You can also choose to avoid other sources of stress, such as by limiting how much or how often you read the news.

One of the reasons change can be hard is because we have an idea of how the world works. When these rules change, it can be deeply unsettling because they have helped anchor us in our lives. However, life isn’t necessarily a place with neat rules, where learning them means nothing will go wrong. Life is a constant series of changes. We, as living beings, change throughout our lives, and so does the world around us. The difference is that in most cases we have time to adjust. However, the ability to adapt and respond to change is within us all.

We can look at the world around us, and try to see beyond the rules we thought governed it. What is actually happening, right now? Society is suddenly limited to families and households, and the rules of interaction have all changed. As such it can feel that the world is a more lonely place. Yet if we look we can see neighbours helping each other, strangers offering to do the shopping, the doorstep clapping for the NHS and keyworkers on a Thursday night. Even the act of staying at home is an act of social consideration: one that can, does, and will save lives.

Living in the now can literally involve looking around us. If we are trying to focus on what we can see in the moment rather than what think we ought to see, then using our senses can be the best way to do this. What can you hear, see, touch, taste, smell, right now? How does your body feel when you do your daily walk or exercise?

Acknowledging disappointments

This may sound as though I am saying ‘simply accept’ it, but that is not the message I want to give. I think that acceptance involves first acknowledging the feelings of loss and disappointment that change brings. With a lockdown comes the loss of freedoms, socialising, work, plans, holidays and much more. Each person’s list of losses will be different. A child in year 6 who has had an abrupt end to their primary school days, including end of year plays and trips, is experiencing a loss, as is someone who has lost their job and is worrying about how to make ends meet. Both will be felt deeply, and bring with them a whole host of other feelings: disappointment, anger, injustice, loneliness, anxiety, worry.

‘Small’ losses can be felt deeply, but there can be guilt too about feeling them when others are losing on such a greater scale around us. I would argue though that we need to be kind to ourselves and give ourselves the space and permission to be sad about a cancelled holiday, or family get together. Once we acknowledge these we will be more free to look around us, and start to get used to ‘the new normal. What are your disappointments? Maybe you can take a moment to acknowledge them, and how it feels when you think of them. Taking the time to acknowledge them and accept any sadness or loss that come from them may bring about a shift in how you feel. Denying your own sadness can be a way to stay stuck in the feeling – acknowledging it can be a way to help you move forward.

Looking to the future

There is a future, after all this is over. One day we will return to complaining about our commutes to work, and our children will have to navigate friendships in the playground again. We will spend time with wider family, hug each other, have dinners out or an evening in a pub. Maybe we will do so with new appreciation: we won’t take any of it for granted.

In summary then, we are all trying to adjust to the ‘new normal’. This can be hard when life looks and feels very different to how we have learned to expect it to. Feeling out of control can make it all the more stressful. And ignoring the small losses of disappointments and cancelled plans can also make adjusting to change harder.

What can we do to help adjust to change?

  • Let go of expectations of how life ‘should’ be
  • Live in the now – use our senses to help us know what is true right now
  • Find the small things we can control, to help lessen the stress of change
  • Know that change is hard to deal with, for everyone
  • Acknowledge the losses and disappointments we are experiencing
  • Remember that the more time passes, the more information we will have, and the less uncertain the future will look.
  • Know that this too, will pass.

Extra Resources

Meditation can be a useful practice to help us slow down and live with, and accept more, the now. There are several apps available that can help to learn how to meditate. Not everyone finds meditation works for them, and it is OK if it doesn’t for you. Most apps are free to try, so you can have a go and see if it helps, or maybe pick up the practice again if you haven’t done it for a while.

Meditation apps

Headspace

Calm

Stop, Breathe, Think

This is not an exhaustive list, nor is inclusion here any particular endorsement. The key is to find something that works for you.