Uncertainty and anxiety are present after any major disaster, like a lingering fog. The more consciously we focus on navigating through the next several months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the better our recovery will be.
By Cheri Lovre and Art Kleiner
Note to the reader: I coauthored this article with Cheri Lovre, founder of the Crisis Management Institute in Salem, Oregon. Cheri works with educators to help school communities recover after school shootings, the 9/11 attack, natural disasters such as wildfires, other similarly devastating events, and now, the Covid-19 virus. We agreed to publish it under my Medium account. She is the author of a book, A Little Book of Courage for the Big Pandemic, which we worked on together and have just self-published. The idea for this essay came from there. — Art Kleiner
We’re going to come out of it.
There are many steps to take, and it will take some unknown period of time before the COVID-19 pandemic is fully behind us. Even as more effective treatments are recognized, and as vaccines take hold, the emotional effects are just beginning. And yes, many people are still to be infected, and there will still be many losses.
It’s clear now, however, that the crisis period of the pandemic will end — just about everywhere. Perhaps as early as in a few months. Even so, we will be changed. How we will be changed isn’t yet clear yet. It depends on what we do now to prepare.
We will not forget our losses, suffering and sacrifices — including the sacrifices and anxieties we haven’t fully processed yet. But the elements of our lives will once again have semblance of order. That always happens after a crisis. There will be new babies, birthdays to celebrate, graduations to attend, and weddings to plan. We will once again hold the hands of people who are ill. We will be able to congregate, embrace our friends, fall in love, go to lunch at work, sit shoulder to shoulder in classrooms, and travel. These experiences, if they have left us, will come back, and the painful feelings of loss will subside.
The Pattern of Ups and Downs
This is probably not the first time you have suffered losses or known grief. But disasters like the pandemic are different, for two reasons.
First, they are social as well as individual. Many people are affected all at once. That may make it feel like your individual story isn’t getting enough attention, but it also means there are resources and help available that might not otherwise be there. We are not alone.
Second, much of the personal impact is likely to hit us all slowly. In a major disaster, like the pandemic, the losses are not always clearly defined. We know what it is to lose a job or home, but what is the loss we feel when our kids can no longer visit each other? Or when we’re forced to see the same small group of people, day after day? Or when we lose the routine of a commute, a church service, or a session at the health club? Or when a potential romance dies for lack of contact? Or when we can no longer visit in person, and touch each others’ hands?
Our personal losses may seem small and incremental; hardly worth mentioning, especially when others have suffered more. So we put our reactions to them aside, and they creep up on us, each one adding a little bit of stress.
Our personal losses may seem small and incremental; hardly worth mentioning, especially when others have suffered more. So we put our reactions to them aside, and they creep up on us, each one adding a little bit of stress. Our bodies adjust to these small losses, bit by bit, taking on each as an added burden, in ways we hardly notice at first. But sooner or later, we cross a tipping point. Something shifts inside us: a sadness we feel in our chest or our shoulders, that does not seem like it will go away.
So we need to remind ourselves now: That, too will go away. We all are struggling with the uncertainty of the pandemic. We are all experiencing some form of anxiety, and maybe of grief, depression, or even trauma. It is important, for that reason, to know what will happen next. There is a pattern of emotional ups and downs that seems to occur after every large scale catastrophe.
Here is a timeline of what has happened, and what we can expect going forward:
Three paths are shown: anxiety, which many of us experience at some point during this time; grief and depression, which result from the losses we suffer; and trauma, which may become a core experience in life for a few of us. Each individual, depending on circumstances and on our own personal resilience, will tend to follow one of these paths.
The timeline goes through four phases. (As of December 2020, most people reading this are in phase 2, but it is helpful to see where we have been, as well as where we are going.) It’s not possible to say how long each phase will last. That depends on factors like the appearance of vaccines and treatments; whether there are complications and setbacks; and how effective human behavior is in accelerating recovery. The sequence of phases is fairly predictable, however, because it has been observed repeatedly. Indeed, this timeline is adapted from one that has been used since the 1990s by the US government to help mental health professionals manage the aftermath of major disasters.
This is the early stage of the pandemic, when it first arrived. It came to different geographies at different times, but they all experienced a sequence like this:
- Warning. Before disaster strikes, there are often some signs that it is coming. With Covid, the warning period began in November 2019, with intelligence reports about a “mystery pneumonia” in Wuhan.[i] As late as mid-February, it was possible to ignore those warnings. But by July, just about everywhere in the world, the virus had arrived and the pre-pandemic warning period was over.
- Jolt. For any disaster, there is a moment of emotional impact that forces people to pay attention. Since COVID-19 was a rolling crisis, moving from one locale to the next, different people experienced this jolt at different times. This is colloquially known as the “oh, shit” moment. People were stunned. Things are serious now. Normal life was gone. We were suddenly riding a roller coaster we never wanted to board, with ups and downs we couldn’t predict. Our circumstances varied — it’s clear that people of color and people without financial resources tended to get the worst of it — but that sense of feeling shocked or stunned is something that everyone in a crisis shares, even those who pretend otherwise.
That sense of feeling shocked or stunned is something that everyone in a crisis shares, even those who pretend otherwise.
- Peak. You would think the jolt would be followed by anxiety and grief, but instead, in any catastrophe, there is often a short period resembling euphoria. Disaster specialists call this the “honeymoon” or “heroic” period. Mundane daily life is interrupted. We feel part of something meaningful. In cities, we lean out of our windows and sing praises to the first responders and hospital employees. Never mind that most front-line individuals don’t want much of attention. Our public gratitude reflects our own emotional needs: Our desire to regain control of events, just a little bit. And there is often unwarranted optimism in the peak period: leaders say they think we’ll bring the crisis under control before too long.
- Disillusion. But it generally doesn’t take long for the honeymoon to fade away. A realization sets in. This is harder than we thought. With COVID, people continued to get sick. More people died. The cold weather returned. We began to recognize that the pandemic would last a lot longer than we first expected. There were shortages of supplies. So-called miracle cures had no effect. Efforts to send people back to school or work faltered. And our feeling of control faded away.
2. Lingering fog
The shift into disillusion usually feels just like it looks on the timeline. A steady, deep, drop from the emotional peak into a cheerless place, with a great deal of uncertainty. We begin to recognize our vulnerability, and to realize that we don’t fully know what will happen to the people we love, our means of livelihood, our health or immunity, or other significant elements of our lives.
We enter a long period that lacks clarity. Time seems slippery. Things happen around us, or to us, in a way that just drags on. Uncertainty obscures our perspective, as if we’re in a fog that obstructs our view of the markers by which we ordinarily navigate through life. We no longer have a North Star, so we can no longer find our way.
Emotions seem more overwhelming at times like this. We battle anxiety. Grief. Depression. Relationships are strained, families squabble, and some people turn to self-destructive habits. Physical distancing and travel bans make it harder. We can’t rely on our family members or friends as easily. We can’t summon a mental image of a future that we can invest in. We realize that we will have to learn to live with ambiguity.
Our common experience of the lingering fog doesn’t necessarily bring us together. People squabble more — in social media and in everyday life. Fatigue makes everything harder to deal with. We think it’s because of political or family issues, perhaps, but in fact we’re also internalizing the pandemic — and that affects us.
Admittedly, for some of us, it’s not all bad. Solitude has a healing aspect. Introverts may relish the slower pace and peace. Some of us may feel a degree of relief if we can take some time out in lockdown to recoup. But for many, the new demands take up all our bandwidth.
3. Clear path ahead
Sooner or later, we will cross a threshold — a passage out of the lingering fog. Things will still be difficult, but we will now see that they are going to get better.
It may be happening now that the elections are (mostly over) and the medical establishment appears ready to manage the disease. Perhaps when the vaccines are a bit more proven to have effect. Authorities cannot force this transition. It will only arrive when enough of us have reason to be confident that we will, in fact, return to frequent, close, safe social contact.
As of December 2020, when this article is posted, it feels like that threshold is still a bit away. But eventually the fog will lift enough for us to see the North Star again. Even then, we will still have a long way to go, but we will have a better idea of where we are going and how we will get there.
4. New normal
Every crisis finally evolves into a “new normal.” That phrase may sound like a cliché, but it’s what disaster recovery specialists call the period when it is clear that we are no longer in turmoil.
We will be keenly aware that we are not in the same place as before the pandemic. Too much will have changed. But we will remember who we are again.
We will be keenly aware that we are not in the same place as before the pandemic. Too much will have changed. But we will remember who we are again. Like travelers after a long journey, we will set down our bags and take a rest.
Most of us will end up in one of three possible states:
- Some of us will be reinventing ourselves and our relationships. We will be stronger than we were before, as a result of the experience. We will be thinking and talking about the future in a way we didn’t before.
- Some of us (probably the largest group) will be regaining our former ability to function, at a level in which we can hold down a job, raise a family, and do the things we did before. We will experience the pandemic as a memory, as something that changed our lives but is now in the past. We will be the people who hold things together, and who enable life to move on.
- Some of us will still be recovering from the effects of the pandemic over the longer term. The lingering fog will not lift, at least not yet. The losses we have suffered will still greatly influence our day-to-day thoughts, emotions and experiences. But even for this group, there will be the prospect of a gradual return to a functional life.
As in other times of change, our experiences will leave us with emotional scars, new skills and deeper awareness. Having survived this journey through the pandemic will also perhaps soften our hearts toward others. It may have humbled us a bit; strengthened our resolve; clarified our priorities and values; brought about a new spiritual connection or awareness of what is meaningful; or deepened our love in a significant way. We can’t be sure, in advance, of all the effects.
Preparing Now for the Future
The most common emotional difficulty after a crisis is anxiety: worry about the things remaining to resolve, and about further aspects of the crisis to come. It’s helpful to remember that anxiety is fear of future problems — problems that may or may not occur, but that haven’t happened yet. So our recurring task, as we make our way through the lingering fog, is to remain in the present.
We can’t plan for tomorrow because we don’t know what it’s going to look like. Workplaces and schools might open or close at any time. But we can do things for ourselves today. We can create rituals for our lives: baking, cleaning up our houses, exercising, journaling about gratitude, eating in a more deliberate way, practicing mindfulness.
It may not seem necessary during normal times to have regular habits and practices. But in a time of great uncertainty and fogginess, they can provide some light. They allow us to focus more on the factors over which we still have some control. And the more conscious we are about doing this, the better prepared we are for the next stage, when it finally arrives.
We may not have chosen this transition, but we can choose our approach to it. We can make the transition less painful, and healthier for ourselves and the people who matter. We can help determine whether we land in a stronger place, by practicing self-care and doing our best to care for others. We build the foundations of the future through the choices we make now.
To increase our chances of gaining more strength, there are two different types of work we can do.
The first is the inner work of recovery: practices that help us (and perhaps others) better manage our own confusion, anxiety, grief and trauma. The pandemic has given many of us a fresh start on what we do every day, even while coping with painful realities.
We should choose the type of recovery actions that would best enable success, giving ourselves the space, permission, and support we need to make it through this difficult time.
There are a wide range of practices to think about, and they range from familiar self-care practices — eating well, physical exercise, basic mindfulness — to some activities that may seem less familiar, such as writing in a journal, cultivating gratitude, and reorganizing your space. We should choose the type of recovery actions that would best enable success, giving ourselves the space, permission, and support we need to make it through this difficult time.
The second is the work of foundation: actively laying the groundwork to build the post-COVID world in which we want to live. This work tends to be collective work. We take part in conversations about our hopes, not just our fears. These can be profound and creative dialogues, in which we imagine new ways of life. The foundations of the post-COVID world are being laid down this way right now.
You may already know about this. But are you actually engaging in the day to day practice? Are you actually taking care of yourself, so that you can take better care of others around you? The COVID-19 pandemic has set out a deeply personal challenge for all of us. Our ability to manage it, and the quality of our future, depend on whether we approach the challenges of this year with fear or with courage.