As told to Anna Maxted, January 23rd, 2022.
Ah, the irony.
For two years, we’ve been complaining about being confined to our homes, and now we’re complaining about our return to the office.
As Oscar Wilde said, there’s only one thing worse than not getting what you want – getting what you want.
The freedoms we’ve long yearned for have created fresh anxieties. And whether our worry is the continuing pandemic or corporate politics, peace of mind remains strangely elusive.
How can this be? This change is surely a precious gain, so why do we feel so flat – so sad, so angry, so nervy, so nothing?
For anyone impatient with themselves for struggling to snap back to their pacy, powerful, pre-pandemic personality, here’s a brief reminder of what we’ve endured.
Since the spring of 2020, we’ve all lived in uncertainty and fear. Some, if not all, have wondered, will I live or die? Will my job or business survive? We’ve been parted from those we love. We saw our children suffer. Some watched parents die over FaceTime. Our survival wasn’t only threatened. There was an epidemic of death.
No wonder if we’re still trying to make sense of what we’ve coped with. Even now, it’s hard to appreciate the profundity of what we’ve witnessed and experienced.
Indeed, it would be hard to over-dramatise. The last 24 months have, to put it mildly, been tough – on our nervous system, cardiovascular system, on every part of us. We’ve had to fight an invisible enemy.
Essentially, we’ve existed in a state of war, where merely breathing might kill us. Hardly surprising that we’re exhausted – physically, emotionally and mentally.
It’s easy to preach that you’re alive, and your takeaway should be gratitude. Or to quote the saying on the difference between money and time (you always know how much money you have, but never how much time – so cherish every moment.)
Too soon? Well, quite.
Cultivating gratitude can boost contentment, but it can’t be forced, and if all you feel after the hellish horror of these last two years is grief, that’s both reasonable and rational.
Over that time, quite a few people leant a little too heavily on alcohol to get them through. Or they comfort ate, or smoked more heavily (insert your coping mechanism of choice.) It’s natural to want to numb frightening feelings, block out the world.
But the way you survive may not be how you want to live. This time of transition is a chance to heal and shift. There is another way to be – to live the life you want, and to enjoy who you are.
But we should recognise that we are depleted, and that we need to nurture ourselves. That’s not so easy in a work environment where many are silently (or indeed, loudly and aggressively) wrestling with anger, frustrations, loss, fear.
Not everyone has suffered equally. The pandemic has been unfair, divisive. It’s brought out the worst in people, as well as the best.
So how do we facilitate our recovery? We need to take charge of it. Is that by spending on lavish holidays, getting drunk, or buying a new car? Please no.
Pay attention to your patterns (the ones that bestow a brief high before the sense of emptiness returns). Also consider that — alcohol aside, we’ve lived without many of life’s frills and fripperies for two years – why return to old unhelpful habits?
Can we take this as an opportunity to look elsewhere to nourish ourselves? Might we consider replacing material goods with something more enriching, more enduring?
All of this is possible – but to successfully chart a new course, we need to understand where we are now. Most of us love routine and familiarity, and there’s still great uncertainty. Yet while we can’t control world events, we can adjust our response to them.
We can also be kind to ourselves, when we can’t get it together/ man up, or whatever harsh phrase we apply. After this relentless nightmare rollercoaster, it’s bound to be difficult to access calm. To feel on edge is the sensible (evolutionary) response to threat. This isn’t weak. It’s our body trying to protect us.
The next question is, are these moods and behaviours temporary or persistent? Is this just natural anxiety as a new chapter begins? All of us feel uncomfortable.
Think of acclimatising to this out-of-the-bunker situation as to a new pair of shoes. You have to wear them in – you can’t go too far or too fast.
Over four to six weeks, with a manageable amount of social interaction and getting back into a rhythm, notice whether these difficult feelings dissipate.
How can you tell when your heightened alertness has become more harmful than helpful? If it shows no sign of subsiding, and if your behaviour has changed so much that it’s negatively affecting your life and relationships, pay attention.
Is the thought of returning to the office making you paranoid and fearful? Are you prone to anger outbursts or crying fits? Do you quickly become anxious, withdrawn, or overwhelmed?
And if you are persistently anxious, ask why. A good measure of mental health is to ask yourself, what am I looking forward to? (If nothing, this could be a signal that you need some extra support.)
Ask too, what has helped you feel better before? Don’t sit with it. Be proactive.
What can I do? Listen to a piece of music, walk around the block, see a friend at lunchtime. And instead of believing your inner critic (telling you off for what you’re not doing right) be a good parent to yourself. Speak to yourself in a calm, reasonable, kind voice. We would compassionately advise a friend. Why wouldn’t we do the same for ourselves?
How we learn to look after ourselves now could be life-changing. It rests on improving our relationships with those dear to us, with ourselves, with the natural world.
To get beyond yourself – and that in no way means overlooking yourself – is the most important thing. It’s transformational.
We should be more care-givers than care-takers, to ourselves and others. Care-taking is all business and doing. Care-giving is very different.