In late spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was dramatically reshaping the lives of billions around the globe, Briana, a Minneapolis public defender, found herself among the ranks of essential workers. The business of criminal justice couldn’t shut down, or go entirely remote, so she and her colleagues had to quickly return to in-person hearings in courtrooms and client visits in jail. Although they carefully observed mitigation measures, going back was unnerving.
“The first couple of days I went back to work were strange, and I had a lot of worries about getting sick or passing on the virus to someone else,” she recalls. “But I had to adjust and adapt for the benefit of my clients.”
That need to adjust and adapt continues to be a signature effect of the pandemic, as each of us faces decisions about how to proceed as vaccinations accumulate, restrictions lift, and life resumes something resembling pre-COVID normality. In a time of so many profound transitions, most of us may be finding ourselves emotionally stretched in new and possibly unfamiliar ways.
“As a physician who’s seen patients for the last 20 years, I’m used to dealing with frightened people who are uncertain about what information they need to know and how to navigate an unfamiliar path,” says ABC News chief medical correspondent Jennifer Ashton, MD, author of The New Normal: A Roadmap to Resilience in the Pandemic Era. “But now instead of just one person feeling it, the whole country is.”
In the months and years to come, navigating this terrain will require continued thoughtfulness, compassion for ourselves and others, and an acknowledgment that this isn’t always going to be easy. Still, these times offer us a chance to develop and strengthen an invaluable trait: the capacity to adapt to change.
Bend, Don’t Break
As our circumstances continue to evolve, we’re all trying to balance concern for ourselves and others with understandable fears. And no two of us will experience the same readjustment process.
The return of indoor dining, for example, may have caused your friend paralyzing anxiety, while you had already visited your favorite restaurant and ordered every course on the menu — with wine pairings — the moment its doors reopened. You might be tempted to strong-arm your friends with safety statistics, but experts agree that these transitions involve an emotional component that demands respect.
“This is all a call for practicing flexibility and acceptance,” says psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD. “We should see those two things as really healthy psychological skills. In a sense, I don’t see it as necessarily a bad thing that we are being sort of forced to get better at those. I do see it as a nice opportunity to have to strengthen those muscles, so to speak.”
The fact is that each person’s pandemic story will be different. This is a crucial starting point for understanding those whose risk tolerances might differ from ours.
“We’re going to see many strands of experience,” says meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. “We know that many kids and young people have had a very hard time, describing their feelings of loneliness, along with young adults who, for instance, didn’t get a graduation ceremony and are feeling the effects of that.”
And while some of us have been able to work almost entirely from home, others, such as Briana, have been working out in the world throughout the entire pandemic. Our differing degrees of exposure to risk will also shape how we feel as we move forward.
One thing is certain, however: We have all been living under duress for more than a year. There can be a tendency to downplay our own difficulties and compare them with those who have it worse, particularly if no one we love has died. Ashton uncovered this during a conversation with her therapist.
“I was saying that I really don’t have anything to complain about. Thank God, I have a roof over my head and food and a job,” she remembers.
“Then my therapist said, ‘I’m going to stop you right there. There is a concept in psychology called multiple truths — everything you’re saying can be true, and yet on top of it you can feel a sense of loss for how your life is not the same. One does not negate the other.’”
It can help to remember that we are all negotiating with a feeling of loss. This can give us compassion for someone else’s coping process, even if we don’t fully understand it. (For more on responding to the losses endured by others, see “Too Much of a Good Thing,” below.)
Looking Across the Divide
The pandemic frayed many of our relationships, especially in the inflamed territory of social media. At the height of the crisis, many were quick to condemn others for traveling or frequenting beauty salons, for instance, while others vented about what they saw as overzealous restrictions in the name of virus mitigation. Whatever the rationale, fingers were pointed everywhere.
“That sense of judgment, through my lens, comes from a place of fear,” says trauma specialist Tonya Wilhelm, LICSW. “No matter which side of the issue you’re on, that judgment in some ways is perhaps a clumsy way of trying to protect yourself.”
Blaming others for our own feelings of fear and anxiety is a part of what we do as creatures who construct narratives to make sense of life. Technically, these are adaptive strategies, although they’re not particularly constructive.
“It seems as though everyone is tired and exhausted,” notes Salzberg. “There’s been such a tremendous amount of loneliness, and real fractures in families.”
With nearly all of us seeing far fewer people in person during the most restricted months of the pandemic, it became even easier to scapegoat others. Without in-person contact to remind us that people are more than just their opinions, many of us turned to social media to indulge our discontent and anger. (The social-justice movement and presidential election of 2020 added fuel to the fire.)
“The internet and social media are megaphones,” adds Wilhelm. “In therapy we often see couples in what we call a dyad: I’m right and this person is wrong. But when they’re in the same room, then you can get them to start working together.”
Of course, when we’re on social media we’re never in the same room with anyone. This can exacerbate our disagreements. We’re also exposed to algorithms designed to feed us information that reinforces our positions and inflames our emotions. It’s a perfect storm of divisive factors.
As we adjust to a post-acute phase of the pandemic, reconnecting with others will require a willingness to accept different viewpoints, risk tolerance, and worldviews. We can’t control how others will experience these changes and adjustments, just as we haven’t been able to since the pandemic altered all our lives. For many of us, breaks from social media and computer time will be an essential step to developing greater tolerance.
“I’m 100 percent in favor of unplugging,” Wilhelm says. “Start by checking in with yourself. Ask yourself how you feel after you’ve been on Facebook for an hour or scrolling through news updates. How does your body feel energetically?”
Leaving Uncertainty Behind
During the most difficult phases of the pandemic, most of us locked into certain ideas about safety, responsibility, and risk, which felt like a matter of survival. Yet as circumstances continue to evolve, clinging tenaciously to a set of rigid principles may actually damage our mental health.
“I really like to look at flexibility from the perspective of brain health and neuroscience,” says Emmons. “There’s so much value in the ability to change — to be able to see things from different perspectives, tolerate a little discomfort, and yield or give up on a position you’re holding. These things are valuable for neuroplasticity and keeping the brain nimbler and more adaptable as we age. It’s going to be called for moving forward, and that’s a good thing.”
Being flexible may require respecting the choices of our friends and loved ones whose risk tolerance doesn’t match our own. This could mean adjusting to our friend’s notion of what counts as safe, even though our minds have grown accustomed to viewing it as dangerous — or the reverse. We will all process reentry on different timelines, and we can dial our safety behaviors up or down out of consideration as well as caution.
Politicization of the pandemic has been another challenge to moving forward. Many of us find ourselves clinging tightly to our values and those who share them rather than observing our circumstances. “A lot of us make the mistake of taking our beliefs and opinions and making them our identity,” explains psychologist Adam Grant, PhD, author of Think Again.
He suggests that holding our convictions too close can lead to entrenched, inflexible thinking. We may double down on ideas even when they’ve been proven wrong, or when circumstances change. Yet the refusal to entertain different viewpoints cuts us off from change and growth, as well as other people.
Grant recommends practicing the free exchange of viewpoints without repercussions, emotional or otherwise. “Psychological safety is the belief that you can take a risk without being punished or paralyzed,” he explains.
Control What You Can Control
There are lessons from the pandemic months themselves that can help us adapt to whatever comes next. But first we need to observe our own reactions to stress and fear, so we can identify where they might be leading us without our knowing it.
“Self-reflection is really hard to do when people don’t have a sense of physical or psychological safety,” Wilhelm says. “The first step [is] awareness. That can mean simply checking in with yourself and knowing a bit about yourself and how you react to situations.”
Awareness allows us to identify our automatic survival behaviors, such as the anxious overconsumption of news. This often reflects a desire to find a story that will make sense of our fear, and it can stoke a negative outlook.
Scaling back news consumption helps us become more selective and judicious about what we read. When we’re no longer steeped in negative stories we can develop a more clear-eyed assessment of our actual risk, which studies suggest we tend to over- or underestimate.
Amid widespread health anxiety and polarization, many of us also forget that we still have some control over our physical well-being. In her book The New Normal, Ashton reminds readers that nutrition, exercise, and sleep are still the best ways to fortify our health.
“Every single person on the planet, you included, has ways and means of mitigating disease risk, whether we’re talking about cancer, coronavirus, or some other microorganism.”
Change Becomes You
Humans are eminently adaptable, and many of us have cultivated new habits and discovered new hobbies that we want to carry forward. Maybe you’ve started taking long walks outdoors, making more home-cooked meals, or contacting out-of-town family and friends more frequently.
Perhaps you’ve taken up a mindfulness practice such as meditation or yoga. These supports can all help create security as we navigate the unknown.
“Meditation is for some people and not for others, but something it helps you have is a sense of being more present and centered,” Salzberg says. “Part of mindfulness is the ability to be with all your feelings, including the painful ones, while holding compassion for yourself, and remembering to take in the joy, ease exhaustion, and have an ability to renew.”
For many of us, the pandemic has afforded the opportunity to live more simply, maybe even develop a healthier relationship to money. And some of us have realized that we don’t want to return to our previous levels of consumerism and pressure.
“We’re emerging from this with an appreciation of the things we took for granted,” Emmons offers. “The really simple things: being physically present, sharing a table in your home, or going to your kids’ sporting events. What happened to me and a lot of other people was looking at this notion of having to rush out of the house at 7 every morning to drive through heavy traffic, then spend the day in the office, and then do it again. We used to take it for granted that we had to do those things.”
That we used to take some very important things for granted now feels like an understatement. Yet these difficult months may have granted us new capacities, such as a renewed sense of gratitude and appreciation — which may be the most important adaptation of all.
SIDEBAR: Trauma and Change
Our physiological response to trauma can actually make it harder for us to adapt to change. “There’s a great definition of trauma, from Dr. Richard Tedeschi, that I prefer to use,” says psychologist Tonya Wilhelm, LICSW. “It’s anything that really shakes up or calls into question your relationships, your work, your direction in life, your sense of security — those grounding foundations. The pandemic has caused that for many people.”
When we find ourselves on such shifting ground, our fight-or-flight processes can kick in. Stress hormones cause tension, a racing heartbeat, shallow breathing. This response is useful when you’re trying to escape from an angry bear, but when it becomes constant, it creates a hypervigilant, rigid state that prevents mental and emotional flexibility.
For Wilhelm, the breath is essential to calming the fight-or-flight mechanism. She suggests starting by finding a quiet location and focusing on the sensations of your body and breath.
“Then you might have an inkling of your breath feeling constricted, or that you’re having a stress reaction,” she adds. “That means it’s time to take a beat and send a signal to the central nervous system that it’s OK to calm down.”
Some other interventions that can help you regain balance:
- Visualize tranquil scenes, say a prayer, or repeat a mantra or a simple word (such as “happiness” or “peace”).
- Connect with a friend or loved one, even (and maybe especially) if the conversation isn’t focused on trauma or anxiety.
- Get some physical exercise, such as taking a walk outdoors or practicing some yoga. This promotes deeper breathing and relaxation.
- Take a break from stressors like social media and the news.
- Consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has been found to ease anxiety and other symptoms of trauma.
Even if you’re excited about resuming a prepandemic activity, it’s normal to tighten up at the prospect, especially since we’ve all trained ourselves to view many once-benign activities as dangerous. Simple breathwork can help. If you catch yourself becoming suddenly rigid, try counting to five for each breath in and each breath out, either setting a timer for a few minutes or going for a set number of breaths. The effects can be felt immediately.