Navigating Uncertainty during a Pandemic
In mid-March, I was due to finish my Ph.D. thesis and submit it by May-end. Instead, I found myself living in isolation at my home after the campus closed down. Like many people, my sense of coping and well-being has been a little shaken. Eight months have passed since the lockdown. As we enter the festive seasons, it seems as if we have lost the rhythm of our existence. Some people are exhausted from working day in and day out to ensure the running of our society’s basic infrastructure. Others are struggling with the passivity and monotony of each day after losing their jobs or their connection with others. The pandemic has exacerbated the already existing uncertainty in our world over the economy, employment, finances, socialization, relationships, education, physical and mental well-being. And, we all are navigating through these uncertain times the best that we can.
How do we recognize our distress?
As humans, we are a very adaptive species. We all are adapting and responding to the pandemic in different ways. We might be engaging with social media, baking challenges, or online streams to distract ourselves from the uncertainty, but there is a constant sense of boredom, listlessness, fear, and ambiguity. Researchers are calling it ‘acedia’ where one experiences a paradoxical combination of frayed nerves and lack of care, concern, or grief. We are procrastinating, resisting change, having trouble focusing, struggling with scattered thoughts, experiencing difficulty in asking for help, and maybe even planning everything to the last detail. All these are our responses to the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic. But, not all of them are serving us well.
What could be some healthy ways of responding to the uncertainty?
Over the last few months, I have realized that we must tune in with our bodies, needs, and well-being to sail through these uncertain times.
Build realistic expectations around stress-
Our windows of tolerating stress have become smaller. When things become “too much” or “all at the same time,” people either tend to shut down or blow up. Managing our expectations and knowing our threshold for stress helps in responding in healthier ways.
Be kind to yourself -
We need to hold ourselves with compassion to be able to go through these uncertain times. Kindness can look like having short naps, “me time”, meditating, going easy on ourselves, practicing gratitude, acknowledging our feelings, and asking for help. We all need to extend the kindness we show others to ourselves as well.
Routine is a friend -
Maintaining a daily schedule – regular meals, eight hours of sleep, drinking water, some physical activity – these are small things that can support a sense of order and control during these times.
Staying connected with our friends, spending time together, leaning on our support systems, communicating our needs, and ensuring a positive social media interaction can strengthen our well-being efforts.
Uncertainty tends to make us worry about the future or ruminate about the past. Grounding ourselves in the present moment, focusing on one thing that we can control, or focusing on our breath can be powerful ways of not getting swept away by uncertainty waves.
How can we take care of each other better?
We are witnessing various responses to the pandemic around us. Some responses reassure us. Some distress us, and others confuse us. However, when we identify someone impacted by the pandemic and struggling to cope, there are ways in which we can support others’ needs without endangering our sense of coping and life balance.
Check-in and check-out-
Sometimes, just a friendly ‘Hello’ or check-in about their physical health and daily functioning can be enough for people to feel less isolated in their struggles. “Help is what the person needs, not what you can give.” Therefore, giving people space, taking a step back, and allowing them to process their struggles at their own pace can sometimes be more helpful than generic advice or specific solutions to their problem.
Sometimes, we find ourselves confused or unable to help our loved ones because we might have different perspectives. In such situations, the best help we can provide to them is by asking, “what can be helpful?” “what change do they want in their lives at the moment?” or “what can you do to help them?.”
Respect their preferences-
We might find people around us struggling during these difficult times leading us to doubt their choices and decision-making abilities. But, respecting their preferences can help them feel more confident and secure about their ability to cope.
Listen and reflect-
Sometimes, the biggest help to someone suffering can be a ‘patient ear.’ People tend to withdraw when they feel judged while they share their concerns. Being mindful and kind towards our differences can help us be more sensitive while caring for people around us.
Work through the uncertainty together.
We all are coping differently. Allow people to function within the limits they are capable of at the moment. Sometimes, just including people in everyday activities and reassuring them that they are not alone is more helpful than fixing their problem.
Remember that patience is your friend-
Helping others can get frustrating when our efforts are rejected, and people try to push us away. In those difficult times, patience is our friend. Understanding that “there are no quick fixes” and “people take time to come to terms with their struggles” goes a long way. It is a stressful time for people, organizations, institutions, states, and the world. We can protect ourselves and those around us by embracing good physical and mental health ways of being, relying on others, and being there for others when necessary.
Ms. Arpita Gupta
PhD Scholar, Clinical Psychologist
HSS Department, IIT Kanpur