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COVID-19: stretching our emotional resilience | Opinion

As I was entering the local Walmart the other day, I passed a gentleman on his way out who was fiddling quite a bit with his mask. Finally, he tore the thing from his face, threw it into his shopping cart, and then muttered some choice words implying that mask-wearing was something akin to a widely used natural fertilizer.

My fellow countryman and Walmart shopper was wrong, of course, about masks; they are a minor inconvenience for a major health benefit. But his irritation was understandable. The mask is yet another thing to remember, another thing we have to think about. And, in one of the hottest summers on record, who wants a face full of hot, smelly air every three seconds when you exhale?

Masks, though, are hardly our biggest source of anger. Due to various closures, many of us, myself included, can’t work, and, for many of us, no work means no pay. There is unemployment compensation, of course, but the system is swamped right now, and whenever—or, I should say, if ever—you get through to someone, the encounter is not exactly guaranteed to brighten your disposition.

You tell yourself you have to just “roll with this,” but how long can you go on just rolling, especially when, on the inside, your blood is always just under the boiling point?

Yes, how long? Most of us can tolerate just about anything, if we can at least see an end to it. But COVID -19 is not only ticking us off, it is keeping us in the depths of uncertainty. When will this end? Are we still in Stage One? Will there be a Stage Two? Or Three? When will the kids get back to school? Will there be another Great Recession, or worse? Will there ever be a cure or a vaccine? And, what if I get sick?

Uncertainty breeds anxiety, and living in a state of even low-level anger and fear is, to say the least, stressful, all the more so when it is unremitting. The two keys to dealing with stress are predictability and control, but Covid is leaving us without much of either. Predictions vary widely, and some of them are terrifying. Some experts, for instance, have suggested the possibility of a death toll of 300,000 by December 1st. If these prognosticators are right, it sure doesn’t seem like things will be better any time soon, no matter what you or I do.

So add helplessness to this picture, and you now have a perfect formula for depression. You have anger, plus anxiety, plus stress, plus helplessness. I suspect that many people right now are depressed without even knowing it. They may feel tired, unmotivated, unhappy, and unable to find pleasure in things they used to enjoy. They may have trouble concentrating, be more irritable than before, and may be experiencing changes in eating and sleeping habits.

The measures of control that are available to us don’t afford much reassurance. You can (and should) wear the face covering, but that doesn’t protect you so much as it protects others from you. The COVID virus is invisible, so how do you know you are doing any good by wearing the mask? Or, for that matter, by washing your hands regularly (which, again, you should). If only we could see those little virus critters going down the drain.

You can sing “Happy Birthday” until the cows come home, but how do you know there isn’t still a tiny germ or two under a finger nail? You can keep social distance, too, but it isn’t always possible to stay six feet away, and, for that matter, is six feet always far enough? The big problem with all of these measures is that they only work if everyone practices them. That’s probably not realistic, so it’s easy to get discouraged. What good is my wearing a mask as long as there is a handful of others who won’t? People say we’re all in this together. But are we? And how would we know?

Staying home–self-quarantining–is probably the best option, but we are profoundly social creatures, and staying away from one another is a violation of our nature. And, speaking of depression, maintaining a social life is one of the best ways to stay emotionally healthy and reasonably happy. Some of the oldest advice about dealing with depression is this: Be active, and be with people.

So, what to do? Certainly, wear the mask, wash the hands, and maintain social distance as best you can. But also be mindful of your emotional health. Social life may be diminished right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find someone to talk to. Whether a spouse, a close friend, a pastor, or professional counselor, talking about the impact of COVID on your life gives you some release, and it often helps you to clarify exactly what is going on with you emotionally. Maybe you are depressed, but you didn’t know it until you expressed yourself to someone else. Maybe you are just rolling with things, but until you opened yourself to another, you hadn’t realized that you are quite frankly sick of just rolling with things.

You may find this to be a good time to reconnect with distant family members, even if it must be done remotely.

Staying active helps, too. Being stuck in the house could also be an opportunity to try something new. Maybe you can start that exercise program you’ve been putting off, or organize that closet, or try some new recipes. You might go online and take guitar lessons, learn a language, or take a course in existential philosophy.

If you find that you just can’t motivate yourself, or that nothing you try is working, you may want to look into some professional help. You don’t even need to go to the office these days. Tele-medicine, and tele-therapy are easily accessible, and may be just the lifeline you need.

I don’t wish to add to the gloom and doom, but I do want to point out that the effects of long-term stressful events, like the COVID-19 pandemic, are sometimes not evident until the stressful time passes. Dealing with low-level stress day in and day out is exhausting, but you may not realize how depleted your emotional resources are until the stress has passed. When the virus comes under control, you may find yourself feeling worse instead of better. It’s understandable, so allow yourself to feel worse, and do what you need to do to recoup and rejuvenate.

It has been said many times that we are in uncharted waters. That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. The adults among us do have some prior experience at managing their emotions. Some are better at it than others, but everyone can do it. COVID-19 presents a rare challenge, but human beings are resilient and resourceful. Feeling helpless doesn’t mean things are hopeless. Stay healthy.

Wayne Trotta, Silver Spring Township

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