When the global Covid-19 pandemic was declared in March, there was no telling how long the crisis would last. Now into the fourth month, with over 4.3 million Covid-19 infections in the United States, many people are realizing that the pandemic is more of a marathon than a sprint.
In fact, “I don’t really see us eradicating it,” White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said of the virus on July 22.
Though that doesn’t mean Americans will always have to live with strict restrictions once there are treatments or a vaccine, accepting that we do have to live with a new normal for the foreseeable future is no easy task, says Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Detox Your Thoughts” who is on the faculty at Georgetown University.
Most of us are coping with higher levels of anxiety and chronic stress as a result of living with the threat of a deadly viral illness, Bonior says. “The uncertainty makes it even worse because we can’t tell ourselves that there is an end in sight,” she says.
Humans are hard-wired to plan ahead and anticipate dangers, says Souzan Swift, a licensed clinical psychologist with the telemedicine platform Heal. “We want to have control of what’s happening,” Swift says. “And when we don’t have control, it does feel harder to get through things.”
Here are ways to help you stay happier and calmer as we learn to live with Covid-19 long-term:
Focus on the reality now
If these last months have taught us anything, it’s that things can change constantly, Swift says. “It does feel like this pandemic is never going to end and that can feel stressful and overwhelming,” she says. But focusing on the negative aspects of the current situation is not going to make you feel calmer, she says.
It’s only natural to think and plan for what-if scenarios, but “sometimes we end up down that rabbit hole where [our thoughts are] no longer based in reality,” Swift says. When you notice yourself slipping into that “rabbit hole” or catastrophizing your situation, recognize that it’s your body’s anxiety response in action. Handling “what is happening right now” on a daily basis will make you feel more in control, she says.
“It does take a lot more effort to challenge and reframe those [anxious] thoughts,” Swift says. “But when we can do that, then it helps you look at the situation from a more positive and hopeful perspective.”
Know the facts but stay flexible
Questions like, will our kids be in school and will we need to be in an office, are still unknown for many people around the country, which makes planning for the future practically impossible. Bonior believes that the best way to cope with this loss of control is to look at facts, and stay flexible.
Think about specific scenarios from an objective standpoint. For example, what are the benefits and drawbacks of returning to school? What decisions are possible and not possible for my family? Give yourself permission to take your own individual family factors into account, and extend that respect to other families.
To that end, you also must remain open to change. “You need to give yourself permission to change your mind if the data changes, or if you get an opinion about something that makes you see things a different way,” Bonior says. For example, you might discover that your child is struggling with the hybrid school model, and they need to try something different. “Every single family is different,” and what’s right for one family is right for everyone, she says.
Create a sustainable routine
Building a routine is soothing to us, because it frees up mental energy for us to focus on other tasks, Bonior says. While it might feel like everything is out of your control, there are little ways you can regain structure in your days. For example, decide what time you’re going to have lunch every day, and block it off on your calendar so you don’t have to think about it.
Kids also like schedules, systems and predictability, which may require setting boundaries, Bonior says. “Give them that sense of what they know is going to come up today,” she says. This could even be done on an hourly basis; for instance, you could use color-coded signs by your home workplace to communicate whether you are busy or free.
“So many of us are just struggling each day, like, ‘I need them to be quiet because I need to do the work,'” she says. “But we’re forgetting that we’re asking so much of our kids.”
Connect to your values
“Although this is a really difficult time, where happiness is kind of taking a dip, that doesn’t mean that we can’t still feel some fulfillment through connecting with our sense of purpose during this time,” Bonior says. Happiness research tells us that it’s not just joy and pleasure that bring us happiness, but connecting to a deeper sense of purpose, she says.
Think about what your most important values are during this time, and how you want to convey them to your family and friends, Bonior says. For example, if you have kids, consider what you want them to remember about this time, she says.
Perhaps your kids have realized what it takes to run a household during this time, or have learned to cook their own meals, Bonior says. “Maybe we have a deeper sense of empathy of wanting to help others in our community,” she says. Or, it’s possible that your kids have learned how to apologize after conflicts or manage stress.
Do something physical
Anxiety affects your physical body, and many of us are “walking around in a chronic stress response,” Bonior says. As a result, you might notice that you have extra muscular tension, or you’re not breathing as deeply as you normally do or you may even feel nauseated. “We absolutely have to address our stress on a physical level, or else we’re just trying to talk ourselves out of it,” she says.
Find an activity that you enjoy that brings awareness back to your physical body, she suggests. Whether it’s taking a break to practice a few yoga poses by your desk, listening to music as you take deep breaths or going for a walk at the end of the day (Dr. Anthony Fauci is a fan of this stress-reliever), pay attention to how your body feels on a daily basis.
Know it’s okay to be disappointed
From family vacations to weddings and graduations, many events that people were looking forward to have been canceled or rescheduled indefinitely.
It’s important to let yourself be upset and mourn these missed milestones, Bonior says. “We get excited about meaningful things in our lives, and it absolutely is awful to have to take away,” she says. Acknowledge that your feelings are valid, and it’s okay to be disappointed.
Think about what you were going to get out of the events, or what they represented to you, Bonior says. Maybe you wanted a vacation to get away from work and have a change of scenery, or perhaps you were looking forward to spending time with extended family, for instance. Figure out ways to safely fulfill your needs (through virtual hangouts or road trips), even if some of the other events have to be postponed, she says.