It is slowly dawning on us all that this is not going to be a sprint. We are beginning to understand that we’ll be living with this virus (and our radically different lives) for some considerable time.
I’m not surprised it’s taking us a while to adjust. It’s only three months since the first cases were seen in Wuhan. Yet at the time of writing Covid-19 has spread to 203 countries and territories. Over 1 million people have been infected. And this is only the people who have been tested. It is remarkable that we are going through such a transformation simultaneously across the globe.
Our workplace systems are not designed for this. We are currently relying on a small group of people to keep us safe, well and fed: the medical and emergency staff on the frontline. The farmers. The folk in the supermarkets and pharmacies. The delivery drivers and postmen. To adapt Churchill’s quote: “Never in the field of human history has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
Unprecedented is an over-used word right now and we have become rather inured to it. But how do we describe this in another way? How do we get our heads around what is happening when it has never happened before, when it is indeed unprecedented?
At times it can feel overwhelming to contemplate the changes. Our brains are struggling. We have only had weeks to get used to the new reality.
Ironically we can learn from World War Two. In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a psychological theory of human motivation that focused on universal essentials. In his Hierarchy of Needs he said that before anything else we had to make sure our physiological needs were met: food, shelter and clothing.
My husband is one of the 1.5 million people in the UK included on a vulnerable list. It means he cannot leave our house, even to buy food. I am doing likewise joining him to keep the risk as low as possible. We tried to arrange supermarket deliveries, but there were no slots available for weeks. We are still waiting for the government-approved list of vulnerable people to connect with the supermarkets. Then we will be able to get priority bookings. It has not happened yet.
Each day we thought the lists would join up. Each day I checked the supermarket websites. Over the course of a week I watched myself change. My organising skills went into over-drive. I scoured the cupboards, wrote down everything we had, planned every meal for the next ten days. I was definitely languishing at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy.
Two days ago a friend (an angel in disguise) did a food run for us bringing fresh vegetables and fruit. We opened the box with delight. We got excited about cabbage. We cooed over potatoes. The stress lifted immediately. My husband’s jokes returned.
But so many people live like this all their lives. Hand to mouth, day to day. Bulging fridges and an indecision about what to cook is a first world problem. We used to complain when our supermarket ran out of our brand of ice cream. We railed against the inefficiencies of their supply chain. This has been a lesson in appreciation.
So back to Maslow and the Hierarchy — once we have food, we move up to the next level. Safety. But how can we feel OK when our neighbours could make us ill? How can we feel secure when people go to hospital but don’t return? One way is to create a routine that keeps us protected — hand washing, social distancing, staying indoors. Once we feel safe we can work towards the next level: love and belonging.
Social distancing has meant we are seeing fewer people. We are working from home. We cannot visit loved ones or friends. It’s hard to feel love and belonging if we are stuck indoors. Technology seems to be coming to the rescue. Thousands of people are using video software, such as Zoom, in virtual classrooms, church services and for blind dates! An app tracking firm, Apptopia, highlighted that Zoom was downloaded 2.13 million times per day — up from 56,000 per day, just a few weeks ago.
So if this isn’t a sprint, what can we do? How do we pace ourselves when there is no finish line in sight?
One thing we can do is to focus more on our resources. I’m interviewing 100 people going through career and life changes and we talk a lot about what has helped them to cope. As we’re all going through a life transition it might be useful to share what my interviewees say.
There are a number of themes they have in common. We talk about friends, work colleagues, partners. Sometimes a coach or therapist is helpful, or often sport, exercise and hobbies. Frequently they mention food and sleep.
Friends and family: “I had a couple of really good friends at work. I would have broken without them. I poured my soul out to them and they kept me going,” said one interviewee. Another said her boyfriend had been very patient in particular and she had been supported by friends who “celebrated the highs and shuffled me through the lows.” And another said: “I know it’s a massive cliché, but I’m going to say it because it’s true. When you go through something like this you do find out who your real friends are.”
Sport and exercise came up a lot: “I suffer from mental chatter, a lot of noise going on all of the time and the voices are not always positive. Yoga gives me a break from stressing out about everything. It’s all about being present on the mat. The physical element of being flexible and stronger and the mental element of finding peace of mind.” Others focused on mindfulness — “It helps me live the moment and… lowers my levels of anxiety” — and sleep. “I have really good sleep hygiene — no TV an hour before bed.”
Books/videos/hobbies: some people like to read and gave examples such as Julia Samuel’s “This Too Shall Pass,” or helpful videos and TED talks by Brené Brown. “It’s not natural to be operating in a fight or flight mode 24/7... at the beginning it was physical things like sleep, reducing stress, eating well, cooking. Then it transitioned to focusing more on myself. I used to only read on holiday. Now I read lots of books. I love reading, I love knitting, too.”
Food: quite a few interviewees focused on how they eat: “It’s a pattern I noticed and I know well from the past. When I’m really unhappy, I eat nothing and I mean really, really deeply unhappy. And if I’m just kind of a bit down I eat everything. It seems to always come out in food for me.” Another said: “I cut out sugar and processed carbs and notice a difference in my mental health and how I feel. More veg and fruit and my mind feels clear and less sluggish.”
Of course there are many other options. Only you will know what helps you.
I trained as a transitions coach a few years ago — helping people going through life changes –in age, promotions at work, marriage, divorce, death of a loved one. One of the tools we used was Palmer and Panchal’s INSIGHT framework, which can help people manage transitions more positively. I’ll pick out a few that might help.
Develop greater self-knowledge: understand yourself better. Reflect on why you are finding this so challenging. Talk to loved ones and close friends who know you well. What are you particularly struggling with: loss of freedom, fear of the unknown, being out of control? Let other people help you if you normally do it all yourself. Be aware of your own expectations about yourself and compare them to others’ expectations of you. Are they out of whack?
Support positive coping: develop coping strategies to help yourself. Look at what you have control over — get enough exercise, eat and sleep well. Focus on acceptance. This is the new reality — you cannot change it. Remind yourself about the things you have no power over — increasing infections each day, other people’s behaviour, government decisions and policy. Monitor how much news you consume. Stop shouting at the TV. Also look at your thought patterns — are you being supportive, or are you beating yourself up? Try gratitude exercises — pick three things each day that you are grateful for.
Integrate past, present and future: think about how have you dealt with challenges in the past. When did you manage to tackle the really hard times? What did you do well? How did you come out of it stronger? Look back on those times now and try and replicate what worked. Imagine yourself in 12 or 18 months’ time. How will you have dealt with this difficult time? What actions would you have taken? How will you have developed?
Above all remember this is a marathon. You need to pace yourself. And take the bottle of water when it’s offered. We can’t do this alone.
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’m running interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. Each week I’ll share the themes — how they are getting back on track and the wisdom they are developing as they work their way through.
Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan