How to be brave, bold, and clear-minded as coronavirus restrictions lift.
Posted May 01, 2020
None of us knows the future in terms of how the coronavirus will play out, but we do know one thing: the conflicting information, mixed messages, attempts to homeschool our kids, different states with different policies, and lack of information about the virus itself all create a lot of confusion.
Source: Kazi Mizan / Unsplash
Confusion leads to psychological distress. This distress can manifest itself as fear, anger, and frustration. It can also trigger burnout, which doctors, nurses, and emergency personnel face. Burnout is another result of the psychological distress of living with confusion.
I recently read about an ER doctor who died by suicide. I was saddened, but not totally surprised that this had happened. Doctors are at the frontlines literally and psychologically of the global state of confusion.
None of us can really count on what we’re told. Different media outlets serve up differing accounts of what’s really going on, as does the White House. Social media influencers and celebrities add to the chaos with their own opinions. The guidelines in our states and in neighboring states vary, and keep changing. We don’t know when, exactly, the stay-at-home guidelines will lift nationally or internationally. When will there be a vaccine? When will it be safe to go out? My child’s Spanish teacher called to report a rumor that schools won’t reopen until January 2021. I felt like someone had just dropped a house on top of me. And it’s just a rumor. We don’t really know. The next day, someone said casually, ‘Well, when school starts in the fall…”
Charles Darwin said that those who survive can adapt quickly to change. I believe in this theory, but how do you adapt to something unpredictable? Which environment are we adapting to? All of this leads to serious confusion.
Fortunately, there is one thing we can do: protect ourselves emotionally: decide on a specific set of guidelines to follow, and stick to your plan.
Which guidelines? Unfortunately, you’ll have to cobble them together yourself. But you need to decide on the guidelines you’ll follow because when you know your rules, you can follow them, without confusion or conflict. Having a clear set of rules will end the overwhelming sense of confusion.
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Figure out what you believe is correct for you, to the best of your ability, and then stick to it. You might follow the CDC, which is the general recommendation of OCD therapists around the nation—do no more and no less than what the CDC advises. Of course, this is tricky itself; as of the end of April, on the same page of CDC.gov, you’ll find guidance to follow your state’s rules and also guidance to stay out of restaurants. Restaurants are open in Georgia. What do you do?
You make a tally of the information available now—visit the website of a couple trusted sources such as the CDC, the WHO and your own state, perhaps talk to a few educated, smart friends—and then make some decisions about your Personal Safety Protocol.
For me, when this all started, I was inundated with calls from OCD clients about what do. I also had to decide for myself. I made a decision about what I was and was not going to do. I would not disinfect my groceries or Clorox-wipe the floor or shower after shopping. I would wash my hands for 20 seconds. I made a list of guidelines and have stuck to it. I knew I had to because I did not want to slip into the abyss of OCD. I made this list of personal guidelines and have been advising clients to do the same for themselves and their families.
People instinctively turn to leadership when they are afraid and not sure what to do. When there is no clear guidance and all you get is ambiguity, I highly recommend you become your own leader for you and your children. Seriously, to hell with everything else. Now is the time you make your own rules and your own policies. Be proud of yourself for being brave enough to have consistency, and then you stick to your new guidelines. Be your own leader.
Adapt Your Personal Safety Protocol as the Facts Change
You may have to adapt your Personal Safety Protocol as the situation changes—new locations open, more masks become available, eventually schools open. In the upcoming months, there will be many decisions to be made as restrictions start lifting. Some of us are watching what happens in Georgia and will take our cue from there. (I’m watching my psychologist friends in Georgia; Florida is right behind y’all.)
As various services and locations open in your area, make your decisions about what you will and won’t do, and then add those decisions to your Personal Safety Protocol. Don’t waffle and go half-way. Do get informed. You may need to call specific places and people to get information to inform your decisions. Call your hairdresser and ask about safety protocols, and then use this information to decide if you will go this month, or not. Going to the beach? Find out what kind of social distancing measures will be put in place. Then make a decision about whether or not to hit the sand.
Also, be aware that if you’re in a state that is relaxing its guidelines, that very fact might make you feel fear. You look at other states that aren’t lifting restrictions and think, “If it’s safe to dine out now in my state, why is it not safe in California? Is it really safe here?” This discrepancy in rules can add to the confusion we’ve all been living with for months, and serve up a hefty dose of fear.
When restaurants open in Florida, where I live, I will make the choice to go. Plenty of people will not. Whatever choice you make, commit to that choice. Do not decide to go, then go and leave quickly. Or decide to go, then arrive and stand around outside debating in front of your kids whether or not to enter. Being in limbo is not your friend. If you go, go like a warrior. Go like a boss. Do not go and do tons of compulsions.
You can start on this work now. Imagine everything is open in your state. What will you do and not do? You can start devising your own plan for returning to normal, which will help ease the transition when it comes, and minimize confusion. Your best way to weather the uncertainty of these times, psychologically is to create behaviors that are consistent, now and in the coming months, and follow them.
I predict that when this is finally over, we’ll retain (hopefully) some good behaviors, like washing our hands more. A lot of the CDC’s original recommendations were, frankly, pretty practical safety advice: Don’t come into an office if you have a cold or fever or cough; wash your hands for 20 seconds. We should have been doing these things all along.
As for the OCD-like compulsions that we’ve all been doing for months, I think, for most of us, they will fade away. It’s like getting a speeding ticket. After you get pulled over for speeding, you make a big effort to drive more slowly for a while. But then you drift back into your old speed-demon ways. This is my prediction about when the world returns to normal. We probably will, too.
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