Rules have changed and the world feels uncertain. But there are ways to be positive about life whatever your situation, says psychotherapist Jean-Claude Chalmet
If you’re feeling flat, exhausted and struggling to cope with the uncertainties as coronavirus cases rise again and distancing rules change, you are obviously not alone. For months now, in the face of extreme adversity, we’ve adapted and rallied, but as autumn draws in and the pandemic drags on, that emotional energy is hard to sustain. Life is still uncertain and planning for anything but the very near future seems almost impossible.
Will there be further lockdowns? How safe are our jobs? And how on earth will our children make sense of this strangest of years?
Many of us are now negotiating an unfamiliar school, college or office routine, and the days are slowly getting shorter and darker. We can’t meet in groups of more than six. It’s no wonder so many of us feel low. But we’re far from helpless, even if it seems that way. We mustn’t underestimate our ability to adapt; to take action and to find opportunities for growth and happiness amid the uncertainty. These are the kinds of issues we’re dealing with now.
You’re frustrated that you can’t plan anything — you’ve had enough of uncertainty and life-limiting rules
The fact we imagined the pandemic would be over in months has meant endless readjustment of expectations and worry about the unknown. Not only that, but the rules are constantly changing, requiring us to recalibrate, cancel plans, change routine. That’s mentally exhausting and many of us feel bored, beaten down, deprived — and in need of a big treat.
But our usual options for cheering ourselves up aren’t open to us. We can’t book that theatre outing or even organise a lavish Christmas because we don’t know for certain where we will be able to go or who we will be able to mingle with in the next few months.
It’s a good opportunity to accept that, actually, much of our life is unpredictable, however much we micromanage. Perhaps this is our opportunity to accept the reality of what we can control.
And to remember that the ability to be flexible makes it easier to be happy. While we don’t currently have the pick of the globe, we can still travel. And even if the Royal Opera House is shut, we can stream opera and ballet content online. These may not be perfect options, but it’s still possible to be entertained and find joy.
Focus on what you can do, although it’s our nature to want what we can’t have. Also, don’t forget that these rules have preserved lives. While they’re annoying, our sacrifices have protected many people we care about.
A helpful philosophy is to widen your perspective. Practise a technique called “temporal distancing”, through which you picture yourself in the future. Imagine looking back on this time and how you coped. Over a lifetime, six months or a year of hardship and limited freedom of movement is not so bad.
Living through a pandemic in the summer was manageable. But you don’t think you can cope with it now
The sunny summer helped to make all this more bearable; it was easier to soldier on. But as the days grow dark, it’s easy to let our mood darken too. We must make a conscious commitment to ourselves to fight against a downward spiral. We’ll happily help out our friends, spoil our pets, comfort our children and be kind to our partner, yet we find it so difficult to nurture ourselves. But now is the time to be extraordinarily compassionate to ourselves. Celebrate whatever you can: anniversaries, even Hallowe’en. Keep asking yourself, “Who do I want to be, towards myself and others?” — and try to be that person.
The kids are back at school. You’re relieved, but it feels like the party’s over
Many of us are feeling this sense of loss, especially those with older children going off to university. Despite all the stress, for many the past few months have been special — and now our bubble has burst. But there’s no reason why a part of what we had together can’t survive and continue.
We’ve had a surprisingly rewarding experience, but it’s in our power to maintain, retrieve and hold on to its essence, even if in smaller, more occasional doses. Is it the spontaneity you miss, the sense of fun or the feeling of mutual support? You can still have them. I ask clients in clinic: “If you could distil what you had and put it in a bottle, what would the ingredients be so that you could take a swig when needed?”
The past few months have made you realise you really don’t like your job, but it’s hardly the time to look for another one
To recognise that you don’t like your job is a blessing, albeit in heavy disguise. Even if it’s not a good idea to resign at the moment, this is an exciting time. You’ve discovered what you don’t like and realised you want to make a change, and that’s something to be grateful for.
Take time finding your new direction; it doesn’t have to be immediate. Determine to discover what you do like and to design a plan, a set of stepping stones that over 12-18 months will lead to something better. During this period of overwhelming change, many of us have had time to assess our pre-pandemic lives — and if we’ve realised that our existence was unrewarding and we deserve better, that’s a significant achievement. Lay the foundations of change and build on that.
You’re feeling sad about what your children have missed out on, such as gap years and festivals
It’s easy to focus on what our children have missed and to grieve for their curtailed freedom. But what have they gained in these past six months? For many, it’s been an extraordinary time of family bonding. Going through hardship together and seeing that you can emerge the other end is an important experience — more important than prom or freshers week. Getting drunk and partying is something they will do most weekends at university, if not this year, then next.
Yes, many students suffered terribly because of the exam results fiasco; I don’t minimise what they endured. But most parents have been a huge support to their children and those precious connections have been strengthened. This matters profoundly.
The uncertainty is making you feel angry and snappy
Many of us are used to solving problems and being in control, or having the illusion of control. I have some clients for whom their anger may be masking their hurt that this pandemic has taken away their power and perks — the big office, the staff, the toys that made us feel successful, valued, important. But for the rest of us, it is simply that humans dislike feeling as though they are not in charge. Some people won’t admit they feel hurt or disappointment because they believe (wrongly) that it’s weak. They express it as anger instead. Anger is understandable, but try to recognise the emotion beneath it.
Often you need to do something, rather than reason anger away. Channel your anger into taking action to look after yourself. Go for a run, ask a friend if you can rant, expend that energy. Meanwhile, do ask yourself, “What lesson is there in this pandemic-altered life for me?” And remember, you do have power — in choosing how you respond to adversity.
You’re feeling more single than ever, but dating right now is tough
In lockdown the dating scene was more romantic and honest, with Zoom chats and park walks. Now it’s back to ghosting and restaurant bills. No wonder many singles feel bleak. But remember that you’ve acquired something valuable over the past few months. You’ve discovered what suits you, so stay true to those needs. You can’t be the only one who feels this way. Are you using dating apps to alleviate your loneliness or to find someone compatible?
There’s no reason you can’t use dating apps like a bar. Do you strip off in a bar and discuss favourite sex positions? Or do you introduce yourself and chat? Think about your role in this. If you don’t like what’s happening, make rules for yourself. Don’t go out with someone unless you’ve chatted for three weeks, then you know they’re interested in you. If they want to sleep with you after one chat, you know you’re just providing a service, like sending a car to the garage.
You and your partner are both WFH. You have a good relationship, but six months in you are getting on each other’s nerves
This pandemic has amplified the good, bad and indifferent in our relationships. We’ve all explored our limits.
Few of us are used to spending this much time together. When you spend every day in close physical proximity, it’s still possible — indeed essential — to find some mental space, otherwise it’s emotionally suffocating. Don’t feel guilty for craving time alone. But if you resent that you are expected to eat lunch together, don’t brood. For both of your sakes, it’s important to talk about what you need.
We imagine our partner will resent us for wanting time apart. But chances are they won’t mind, if you explain kindly. Ask them, “What can I do to make you feel better?” You could even suggest each writing a list of small changes that would improve things for you. If you can each accommodate three suggestions, you’re 50 per cent better off.
The same applies if you’re both feeling low and struggling to support each other, but make sure you say so. “I want to help you but I’m struggling myself” will break the ice and help you feel warm towards each other. Remember the activities you like doing together, whether it’s cooking or running, and keep doing them. Learn to connect with each other, even through the sadness.
Or maybe you actually miss working at home with your partner. If they have been a comfort during this time, it’s natural to feel a little separation anxiety when you go back to spending time apart. But how wonderful to have rediscovered how much you want to be with them. Change is always hard but have faith in your adaptability. Consider how you’ve already adapted this year to immense change.
Ask yourself what you could do in the time you do have together that sufficiently fulfils you and allows you to happily live off that satiated feeling for the week.
Anxiety about money and job security is keeping you awake at night
If you’re tempted to blame yourself — “How did I come to be in this position when I’m diligent and hardworking?” — then don’t. In 2020 it’s certainly not your fault, and shame, self-blame, panic and worry are useless and paralysing. Remind yourself that your energy is better spent on thinking about how to improve your condition. Examine your lifestyle. What’s extraneous? What do you need to be content? How could you make life more secure?
Remember that anxiety is about our overestimation of a threat and underestimation of our ability to cope. One useful way of stilling spiralling anxiety and getting some healing sleep is to try the following exercise. To stop your particular fear from keeping you awake, I suggest writing it down on a piece of paper , then divide the page into two columns. In one, write the substantiating evidence; in the other, the evidence negating the fear. Usually, there’s far more negating evidence.
Be kind and practical, rather than trying to punish yourself.
You’re in your twenties and back living with your parents. It’s a relief not to worry about rent, but now you feel like a child
It’s easy to revert to childishness at home; it’s where you were a child and we revert to what we know. That said, if you go to your parents’ house and act like a child — not paying rent and letting them do your washing — you’ll be treated like one. However, you can live at home as an adult as long as you discuss and negotiate both your needs and those of your parents. Say, “Thank you for helping me out — I know it will sometimes be tricky, but how can we do this as adults?” Don’t expect them to magically adjust and mind-read. If you contribute, you act like an adult and not a dependent. Try to feel gratitude rather than entitlement — and ask yourself, “What do I do for my parents?”
You decided to separate during lockdown and need to start a new life in this difficult time
It takes courage to accept that your relationship is over. My advice in clinic to those who have decided to do this is to proceed slowly. You may be feeling hurt, heartbreak, resentment, anxiety, insecurity about the future, fretting about money. These are all normal emotions, but current uncertainty may amplify them. Give yourself time and space for each move — deciding where you’re going to live, for example. Don’t jump like a jack-in-the-box. You’ve stirred up the sediment in the glass and it needs to settle so that you can see clearly. Think carefully and consider the consequence of every action. I remind my clients that this process is traumatic and painful for most couples, and that it always requires some compromise.
Try to be kind to yourself and to the other person, and find someone trusted to speak to so you don’t feel isolated. As you look to the future, remember to keep asking yourself, “Is this who I want to be? Is this good for me? Is this the direction in which I want to go?”
You miss the sense of community that we had in early lockdown
This pandemic has taught us how important it is to have a sense of belonging. I believe there is a route to happiness through giving. If you miss doing your neighbour’s shopping because it gave you a sense of purpose, why not volunteer for a charity? Now, more than ever, people need assistance. So offer it.
As told to Anna Maxted. The Saturday Times, Friday, September 11 2020 – We must not underestimate our ability to adapt amid the uncertainty