An acquaintance of mine called recently. We talked awhile as usual about various things related to her work and mine, and then she laughingly blurted out her concern that she might be “going bonkers” due to the isolation of her working-from-home status. She realized that, within the past couple of months, she had begun talking through her work related issues—alone and aloud. She was quick to point out that she “always made sure the cat was in the room” so that she wasn’t really talking to herself!
We chatted about some of our observations during these months of altered social experience, and ended up laughing at similarities in our personal concessions to isolation. Admitting that I’ve overheard my wife chatting with herself—allowed my friend to realize it’s not so unusual. We are social beings. We rely on one another for feedback and a better understanding of the world. In a time when a lot of people are working from home, we aren’t getting that—at least we aren’t getting that in ways we’re accustomed to—and it gives us more than a little sense that we’re “going bonkers”. My wife tells me some of her best ideas come from listening as she talks to herself. I know she seems to do it a lot, if that tells anything!
Those of us working from home have made some adjustments to accomplish that challenge. But not everyone is fortunate enough to be working from home. Our health care workers, sanitation and city utility workers, the people keeping our grocery stores and take-out restaurants running—they are all out there on the front lines. These workers, too, have made adjustments (some enormously difficult) related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The mask, whether you love them or hate them, has become part of almost every interpersonal interaction. Social distance—again, whether you practice distancing or not—has changed life for us in the United States. In jobs performed outdoors, with few colleagues or public contact, maybe there is some question about whether any Covid precautions are necessary at all. But with all types of situations, there are considerations related to the spread of this virus. Even for people who say they are completely unconcerned, there are others who love them and are worried for their safety.
These are just facts. Some of us are not worried, others are. The relative degree of concern varies widely, too. Some of us are out in the public with serious risks of exposure and others have been ordered, or given the option, to work from home. With each circumstance and level of caution, individuals undergo the very normal discomforts of adjusting to something new.
Humans are incredibly adaptable. We live in temperature conditions that range from below zero to over 120 degrees. We adapt and thrive in situations as different as the density of Mumbai, India and the sparseness of the Australian Outback. However, these adaptations did not occur suddenly, without warning. Humans can adapt to just about any circumstance, but many adjustments take time.
I’m advising my patients who feel a little bonkers right now to consider the times they made changes to accommodate some kind of new circumstance. This means calling to mind our “skills of resilience” and examining the entire range of emotions and behaviors available. I remember when I moved away to attend college, and the first months of married life. These were fun and exciting times of adaptation, but they required deliberate effort nonetheless. Something that sounds as simple as a change in commuting time can necessitate enormous changes in the life of a family. The birth of a child occasions a lot of adjustment for new parents. A serious medical condition, changes due to aging—these are situations that we face, and require us to shift or adapt in some way. But we do it. We accept the reality, we adjust, we adapt, and we change.
Many individuals I’ve talked to over the past months have been able to find a benefit to their altered situation during the pandemic. Let me go back to that sentence to emphasize the key words—find a benefit. Before I stress that point further, let me say that these people aren’t in particularly advantageous positions. But unlike some of us, they have deliberately looked for ways to view the constraints of the pandemic in semi-temporary terms, or in terms of what they can look forward to when it ends. Others have viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to learn something, or to have more intimate time with members of their household. They have searched for the good in a tough situation. They reinforce my contention (and that of scientific researchers) that whatever circumstance comes along, our best chance of adjusting and becoming more comfortable, will be gained by finding a benefit, and reminding ourselves of that benefit. If I note only the challenges and negatives, the adjustment will ultimately feel much more uncomfortable. If I search for the potential benefits and positives of a new situation, and remind myself of them on a repeated basis, I experience a greater sense of control over my altered reality.
As much as I would like to host large gatherings in my home, or attend important public or private ceremonies with extended family and friends, I am reminding myself that even in this time of isolation from loved ones, I am able to connect and share significant moments with them in other ways. I’m grateful for the technology that allows face-to-face conversations over great distances, and the speed of written communication by text and email.
As a quick aside, I was reminded recently about one of my great grandfathers, and the courage of his decision to leave Norway on the perilous journey to North America. In the late 1870s, when he embarked from his home country, it was an almost undeniable certainty that he would never again see parents, siblings or familiar surroundings. The letters sent back and forth across the Atlantic took weeks to arrive, photographs were a rarity meant only for formal occasions, and the miracle of home telephones were many decades away. I have thought of his parents, and what must have been their experience, saying goodbye to their son, not quite out of his teens, as he boarded a ship for an unknowable future.
We are not facing adjustments of that kind today. We are not asked to never see family members again, or to ponder their fates for weeks or months between letters. Our inconveniences and challenges are different. They are surmountable if we use the skills we’ve developed so far, and remind ourselves of any benefits or nuances that can be deemed positives in this new circumstance. Benefit finding, and reminding, result in gratitude, and everything goes better with that.