Fear and Loathing in a Pandemic

Back on my office cubicle wall there is a calendar turned to the page for March 2020: the month I packed up my bag and went home. I haven’t been back there since that day in early March when our management gave us the direction that if we can work from home, we should.

I’m a little past halfway through my fifth month of telecommuting, and in many ways I’ve settled nicely into this pandemic living. I’ve got my (not so) little collection of cloth masks and – while the occasional trips to the store feel can like going on a raid in any of my favorite zombie fiction pieces – in many ways this hasn’t been so bad really. I’ve been through hard times before and this pandemic has a way of taking on many of the feelings and mental textures of those times.

But, there’s still the fear… and the loathing.

Image from Canva

The Fear

If you didn’t have at least some form of anxiety before the pandemic, I’d be shocked if you’ve gotten this far without at least one small panic attack.

It’s become a joke between my friends and me. We play a game: is it allergies or is it COVID? It’s honestly a terrible game but so far we’ve mostly managed to win… we think.

The fear is probably the most obvious part of the pandemic life. I know everyone has different risk tolerance levels and I’ve known for a long time now that my own willingness to take on risks is quite low. Anyway, if there was any doubt in my mind, the pandemic has clarified it for me. Since March, I’ve had moments when I’ve found myself disinfecting groceries in my garage and terrified of going to the dentist. Some of us had trepidation about going out and about before the specter of a deadly illness hiding behind every human interaction entered our lives. You can imagine how we feel now. The world outside of our relatively safe hobbit hole homes was already scary but now we have a terrible disease, police violence and riots to deal with out there. It’s a scary time!

I’ve dealt with the fear the only and best way that I know: moment by moment, day by day. Allowing myself to mentally venture too far into the future almost always leads to more anxiety and fear. And so, I do what I can to take things one step at a time, focusing my mind on the present moment and what I can do in the here and now.

This is a time of uncertainty, it’s impossible to really know what will happen a week or a month from now. All we can do is make the best decisions we can with the information we have available to us. That information may change tomorrow and tomorrow we may need to make a different choice but that’s a problem for tomorrow. Today, we can simply focus on doing our best.

The Loathing

Often times, when the going gets tough, the tough get pissed. Over the past eight months or so you may have found yourself mad at one or more of the following:

• The news media

• Government officials (in your country and/or other countries)

• Your family members

• Your friends

• Random strangers

• Delivery people

• Your computing equipment (or lack thereof)

• Your job

• Fill in the blank

And… probably above all: the virus itself.

It’s a natural thing to feel anger at uncontrollable, unpredictable times like this. After my mother died, my emotions seemed to ping back and forth between grief and anger aimed at everything. I came to realize that the anger was my mind’s way of trying to assert some sort of control over the situation. Sitting in judgement and passing down righteous anger on a situation gives us the illusion that we have some sort of “authority,” and that can – at least – feel like a sense of control.

There is something strangely satisfying about expressing dislike and disgust during a difficult situation. Ultimately, though, that loathing in itself won’t help us improve our situation. The question becomes: if you’re feeling that sense of fear and loathing, what can you do for your own self-care and mental health?

Remember What You Can (and Cannot) Control

You cannot control the progression of this virus and the impacts the pandemic is having on our economy, our schools and our lives. You can decide how you’re going to meet these challenges both mentally and practically.

This pandemic is causing challenges that most of us did not expect on January 1st, 2020. I have friends with engineering careers who have lost their jobs and are forced to make difficult decisions about relocating their families. Many of my fellow parents and I have had to face the unprecedented challenge of unexpectedly taking our kids out of in-person school and changing to a virtual model that is not quite “homeschool.” Even worse, I do know people who have lost loved ones during this pandemic. Most from non-COVID causes but some from the virus itself. Going through the loss of a loved one is never easy and this pandemic is only making matters more difficult.

Take the self-care and mental health breaks that you need. With virtual work, virtual school and virtual social events, it can seem hard to find a moment that feels “away” and restorative. Even the most routine person needs a bit of variety from time to time. Maybe it means taking a walk on your own or going on a scenic drive. It may even simply mean finding a bit of time to enjoy a new book. It’s important to find those moments of relief in the midst of difficulty.

We can’t control what happens to us but we can control our mental state and our actions in the face of the challenges that come our way. This is always true but especially worth remembering when going through hard times. This pandemic has put many of us in difficult situations; it’s important to focus on what we can control and remember what we can’t control.

We are not in the same boat

Early in the pandemic I came across a statement that has stuck with me ever since. It went a something like this: “we are in the same storm but we are not in the same boat.” Some people are riding out this storm in a comfortable yacht, capable of withstanding the wind and waves. Others are riding out the storm in little more than a simple canoe, holding on with all they have. My own boat feels is like a reliable Coast Guard cutter: a utility vessel capable of working its way through difficulty. It isn’t comfortable but it’s reliable and I’m getting through this without too much disruption to my daily routine.

Everyone’s situation is different and everyone must make the choices that are right for them and their situation based on the information they have available. It’s important to get clear with yourself on what your approach is going to be, regardless of what others are doing or not doing. For example, I decided to wear my mask when out in public even before a mask mandate came to my area. On the scale of pandemic choices, I’ve been on the more “conservative” side of things: choosing to stay home unless I have to make an essential trip, always wearing a mask when in public and even having a face covering available when I’m out on a run on my own, just in case. I’ve made the personal decision to take less chances than others. I know many people who have done more traveling and spent more time with their friends and family than I have. Everyone must make the choices that are right for them and we all have our unique situations and risks to weigh as we navigate through this storm.

No one really has the “right” answer for living through a global pandemic. Sure, epidemiologists and other experts may have prepared for this but a lot of us were caught off guard and are just doing our best to get through each day. Most teachers had to figure out in real-time how to convert from a learning model that assumed in-person classes to suddenly leading virtual classrooms. Teams that typically had one or two people working virtually on occasion, switched to full-time virtual work. Most of us are learning and figuring things out as we go along. Personally, I’ve taken this as an opportunity to give myself and others a little more grace and space to make mistakes.

This is a difficult time for many of us, all we can do is try our best to work our way through it and support others as best we can.

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