Worried about surviving the next phase of lockdown? Dr Aisha Ahmad shares her hard-won advice from disaster zones.
In any sustained crisis, the six-month mark is difficult. Most of us have now lived through pandemic lockdowns and restrictions for half a year, and have relearned how to do our grocery shopping, hold work meetings, and even teach courses. Yet, just as we seem to have adjusted to this global disaster, many of us feel as though we have suddenly hit a brick wall. Right now, you may feel enervated and despairing. As the days start to get shorter and colder, you might fear the next phase will be a long, dark, wintry abyss. You may worry you have already lost your momentum.
Since the pandemic looks likely to continue for another 12 to 18 months, this can seem pretty frightening. At best, we are only a third of the way through this marathon. So how can we make it through a prolonged disaster if we’re already running out of steam?
Take heart. What we are going through right now is a normal but temporary phase. As an international security scholar, I have done a number of tough assignments over the years across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Like all of us, this is my first pandemic; however, I have learnt to sleep with gunfire outside my window and cholera in my neighbourhood for months at a time. In my experience, this six-month wall comes and goes, like clockwork, and is nothing to be afraid of. I shared this on Twitter this week, and the massive response suggests that thousands of people have hit this wall, too.
There’s a typical cycle that occurs in all prolonged disasters. For the first few weeks in a disaster zone, it is natural to be high on adrenalin. During this acute transition phase, you have to learn how to adapt and survive, and will likely spend significant energy figuring out how to get anything done. The uncertainty and newness can be all-consuming. Once you get into a groove, things start to get easier. By the three- to four-month mark, you may even hit your stride and start to feel confident. But just as you seem to have got a handle on things, you may suddenly feel as though you have run out of fuel.
I always hit this wall six months into fieldwork in a disaster zone. The desire to escape or “make it stop” can be intense. In my experience, by six months, my patience and good cheer have all but run out, and I want to run away. Weeks before, I may have been a good sport about my crisis-affected work and family conditions, or the restrictions on my mobility and freedom. But when I hit that wall, my mind and body push back.
This dip is not permanent, nor will it define you through this time of adversity.
It is perfectly natural to become fed up after a prolonged period of systemic disruption and stress. Research suggests that soldiers who deploy for one to six months are more positive about reenlistment, whereas those with 12- to 18-month deployments are more negative towards it. Even among tough elite fighters, prolonged immersion in a crisis zone takes a toll. Most proper militaries will therefore allot soldiers additional leave for periods of deployment, so that they can recharge.
This pandemic is not a war, but it is a systemic disaster that has had a significant effect on our social, economic, and mental well-being. Sure, the virus is not shooting bullets at us. But having experienced plenty of gunfire, I assure you that pandemic stresses are valid and significant. Not getting a hug for months is distressing. Being unable to visit your grandparents in hospital is brutal. Having your spouse work double shifts in front-line service is terrifying. Losing your job, your privacy, or your friendships are serious emotional blows.
Boredom, loneliness and loss have been our foul companions on this pandemic journey. For six months now, we have accepted, and adapted to, these tough conditions with the most courage and resilience we could muster. After all that, hitting a wall can feel terribly demoralising.
Do not despair: the six-month wall is harsh, but also temporary. How many of us are feeling right now is not representative of what our autumn and winter will be like. This is a normal phase in adapting to sustained disaster conditions, and this dip usually breaks naturally in about four to six weeks. Your mind and body are simply asking you for respite, exactly on schedule. The six-month wall is not a sign you are lost or failing. It just means you are tired.
So how can we surmount the wall? Obviously, there are things we all have to continue to do. Work. Cook. Exercise. Vacuum. The majority of us cannot actually take leave from our obligations. Even if we could, travel restrictions mean there is almost nowhere to go. Not a problem. I’ve had to navigate the six-month slump without a physical leave before, and it is perfectly doable.
If a physical retreat is not possible, there are ways to create a mental or figurative “shore leave”. Some of the best techniques I have used to escape a crisis zone that I could not leave have involved a bit of imagination. I confess that the Lord of the Rings trilogy has helped me immensely during sustained periods of violence, shortage, and disease. Historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy all work well in mentally separating you from the here and now. Books can be yet more effective in creating the full-system psychological escape needed at this critical juncture. If your mind is screaming “get me out of here”, this is an excellent way to placate it.
It’s also a good time to refocus on other critical self-care practices: exercise, meditation, online support groups, and a daily walk in the park. Use this time to re-establish boundaries around your core needs. Create and protect this time into your schedule. Do not waste this time on social media. Rather, consider a social media fast, or hard limits on scrolling. Healthy digital connections can be sustaining, but toxic online content is not. Reach out to a real-life friend, either online or in the park. Unless you are in the middle of performing open-heart surgery on a patient, it is unlikely that taking a 30-minute walk is going to kill anyone.
Remember that it is not productive to try to ram your head through the wall. Beating yourself up for struggling will only lengthen the amount of time it will take to make it through. It is much more effective to ride out the dip naturally, trusting that you will soon be on the other side.
Manage your expectations. Tackle less challenging projects. It’s unreasonable to expect to be sparklingly happy or wildly creative right now. If you can meet your obligations squarely and be kind to your loved ones, that’s enough. Your joy and spark will return, so don’t stress about it today. Now is not the time for perfectionism.
Do not be afraid of round two. You have already learned how to navigate this “new normal” and have the skills you need.
Remember, in their first six months of deployment, most people spend all their time simply figuring things out. In their second round, they know the terrain and are much more effective. The same rules apply here. You have six months of vital experience. You already know how to survive under these conditions. You have proved you can do it.
This winter you will not only be able to survive, but will also find new ways to thrive. We have learned how to live, love, and be happy under these rough conditions, so do not despair. This dip is not permanent, nor will it define you through this period of adversity. If you give yourself a moment of respite, you will be across it in no time. We will innovate again, in good cheer. There is light and strength on the other side of the wall.
Aisha Ahmad is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, the Chair of Women in International Security-Canada, and author of Jihad & Co: Black Markets and Islamist Power.