As restrictions begin to lift, have you found yourself feeling a little anxious about what's ahead? If so, you're not alone but our new reality could yet bring positive change.
If it's true that times of adversity can be a catalyst for change then we are primed for a whole lot of changes in the future. Some will be beyond our control, while others will be our way of making sense of a new world and, perhaps, living a better life as a result. Our regular lives have been upended by the COVID-19 crisis and it’s affecting all of us in some way. Chartered psychologist Allison Keating is used to dealing with people in crisis, but, as she explains, now everyone is trying to cope with the same thing. “It’s a collective trauma like we’ve never experienced before," she says. "It’s an interesting way for people to connect though, because everyone is in the same boat. There’s an openness to how people are feeling and there’s a communal sense of fear at almost every level. Everything is affected and there is no certainty.”
Rethinking the old normal
It may feel as if we’ve lost control of our lives but, as Keating explains, we never actually had any in the first place. “We all go around thinking we have control of our lives but we really don’t. This experience has made that very real and visceral. We are being forced to surrender the control that we never really had.”
Change can be tough but it can also be the thing that forces us to reassess our lives and our values. Few would disagree that in modern life ‘normal’ meant busy, stressed, time-poor and, often, unhappy. “What we have accepted as the norm in terms of quality of life would be what I see in my work,” Keating says. “People feeling overworked, constantly busy but not productive, and that sense of the relentless pursuit of striving. As human beings, we don't like change. We specifically don’t like change we didn't choose but some people will come out of this with a completely different understanding of the life they were living. Maybe people won’t go back to normal because normal wasn’t fulfilling or enjoyable. And that’s okay. Maybe normal needed to be questioned. Our lives have been frantic and the impact on mental health was huge.”
the big questions
After the unifying shock of the early restrictions, we are also coming to realise that life as we know it may not return. We’re moving into a different phase now and what comes next may bring its own concerns. “For the first time in my 16 year practice, I’ve seen a drop in anxiety,” Keating notes.“All the trigger points have been removed and some people are fine with that. From my perspective, a lot of people are feeling safe. They’re at home, in a controlled space. But with the idea of going back out there, we’re going to see anxiety levels increase.” As restrictions begin to lift and we leave the relative safety of our homes it will be important to focus on coping strategies.“ If we’re to develop in any way during this time it's to emotionally tune in and not disconnect all the time. Now faced with all this genuine uncertainty, really question what it means and what it means for you. By doing that, you’re trying to bring a sense of control to the uncontrollable.”
There are undoubtedly difficult times but, says Keating, when it comes to the road ahead there is much reason for hope. “I do know that many of us grow through adversity and it is a truth that human beings are extremely adaptive. People are immensely strong and there is an incredible resilience in being human. We adapt to whatever’s thrown at us.”
Perhaps the biggest lesson in all this then is one of acceptance, surrendering to the frustration of our current circumstances but also taking the time to think about what we really want and what’s important to us. The future may not be what we expected but it could be better than we think.The road ahead
While it seems like a lifting of restrictions means things are improving, it’s worth remembering that this new phase may bring its own stresses and it's understandable to feel anxious as we tiptoe our way back into not-so-normal life. Here Keating shares some tips for navigating this new phase:
– Be aware of how it’s affecting you physically and the emotions that you’re feeling. Have you noticed you’re feeling more fearful? Question and maybe make some sort of loose plan that works for you.
– Writing out your biggest fears is like emotional first aid: are you catastrophising? Is there a sense of genuine threat or is it just the thought of one? Most people just ignore these thoughts and think they’re being stupid. Watch out for the ‘shouldn’t’s’ and the ‘I’m being silly’s’, they’re your emotional cues.
– There is no clear answer here, this is more about recognising that your brain is very malleable; it’s able to adapt and change. Be compassionate with yourself and don’t disregard your feelings.
– Remember, people are immensely strong and we adapt to whatever’s thrown at us. There is an incredible resilience in being a human being.
Allison Keating is a Chartered Psychologist at the bWell Clinic;
An extended version of this article first appeared in Irish Tatler's June issue. Our High Summer issue is on shelves now.