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Unravelling the mental strain of Covid-19

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You will cope, if you are not weighed down by fear, anxiety, regret and self-recrimination. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The mental strain of the Coronavirus pandemic, lockdowns, curfews and relative social isolation didn’t show too much at first. At the beginning, it’s a little strange working from home. The first trip out shopping presents a distortion, where everything is familiar, but everything has changed too.

But as families have lived 24/7 together in the home, redundancies have kept coming in, any spare funds have been used, and uncertainty and fear have continued rising, there aren’t many of us left who would say this lockdown isn’t driving us a little mad now.

Of course, there are particular mental strains. One psychologist I read talked about the mental health load for health workers worried they may get sick and infect their families.

Others have picked up on the torture for breadwinners who began 2020 with a job, a home and a family, but are now made redundant and waking every morning wondering how they fell off the world.

Yet, the strain of this pandemic is more universal and pervasive than these examples, because it strikes at the way humans navigate the world around them.

From teenagers and youngsters who were working their way along a well-trodden path of education to their lives ahead, to entrepreneurs with their computers full of spreadsheet forecasts, suddenly the paths we all understood are closed off. There is a suspension of all activity. Indeed, in one viral surge on the internet, one commentator suggested this pandemic had moved us all into an ‘infinite present’ with our futures or anything we might invest in or build towards now entirely moved to ‘pending’, and really made quite unforeseeable.

The reactions to that have been different, because we anyway neatly divide into those who always see the bright side, and those who always see the gloom.

Yet profound uncertainty sends us into a much wider range of coping mechanisms than that.

Some are simply trying to assess how many weeks it might be until we go back to ‘normal’, while others declare mightily that nothing will ever be the same again. In reality, no-one knows what the worst global recession for centuries will be like as it rolls in, but uncertainty strains the human system heavily.

Indeed, some psychologists suggest that our ability to deal with uncertainty is tied to our own levels of insecurity and self-esteem.

The more insecure try to read meaning into every random event, sometimes triggering severe depression and anxiety by overstretching personal responsibility and internalising blame – for events that hit us and have a cause, are, almost inevitably from such a perspective, our fault, somehow. We failed, we had lessons to learn.

Yet this pandemic isn’t our fault. It’s not my fault, nor yours, nor our government’s. There is no fault here, no blame, and nor is there any meaning.

Thus, those who see we may have been lucky in living through decades of peace and schooling, degrees, and career development, and now are unlucky in being around in a pandemic, will survive best.

Even self-anger, because it is weaknesses that existed before that have made us most vulnerable now, isn’t productive.

For, if a storm comes that starts pulling your life raft apart, the person who is bereft they didn’t build it more strongly beforehand, will likely drown as they are consumed by regrets.

Whereas the person who has not a thought for how they got here, but sets to finding new ways of holding the raft together, will better survive.

So, as we hit another mental health awareness week, at a time when our need for resilience and adaptability has never been greater, let the future bring what it will bring.

You will cope, if you are not weighed down by fear, anxiety, regret and self-recrimination. So free yourself. There is always some solution. Every one of us is built to survive if we free our hearts and minds to do just that.

This isn’t your fault. It doesn’t mean you’re crap or brought this upon yourself. And it will open as many new opportunities as ways it closes: it may even send you onto a new path you would never have walked, but spend a lifetime ahead enjoying.