Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Why are we feeling this way?

why are we feeling this way?

This post is by Psychology Melbourne psychologist Gloria Lew

To spare oneself from grief at all costs can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness. - Erich Fromm

Today we are all, in one way or another, linked to everybody else on the planet. We face something malevolent that cannot be seen without a microscope. All over the world, people are in different stages of reaction to the virus – some are out and about, some are not. Some have to wear masks, some do not. Some have to stay at home, some do not ...

We have one major thing in common, however. We are all dealing with the loss of the world as we knew it. 

In Melbourne, this invisible virus has us masked up, curfewed and isolated from each other. There are a wide range of feelings in response to this unfamiliar situation. Sadness, disbelief and irritability are common, as are anxiety and frustration. Some people are also experiencing anger.

Many of us are feeling anxious, frustrated, unsure and lonely. We are also tired: this is the second time in lockdown and our patience has thinned. It’s hard going ... harder for some than for others. 

We are in the world of virtual hugs, deliveries, ("Leave it outside please"), remote work, no eating out, no movies. Our devices are our link to the world in so many more ways than they were before.

It might be even more subtle than that. Perhaps you miss the way people used to greet each other casually without fear of breaching a 1.5 meter barrier; connecting for a deep and meaningful conversation with a close friend; a cup of tea with your neighbour; chatting while picking up the kids from school or the feeling of your Mum or Dad's embrace.

We are dealing with losing our normal workplace; our personal freedom; our ability to choose what to do; to move around freely and engage with our friends and family. Weddings, concerts, meetings, travel plans, school events, and sport have been cancelled or postponed due to the virus. These are serious losses and they can affect us psychologically. Some people have even lost their livelihood or their home. 

Grief is a natural response to loss, and everyone experiences grief differently. It can take some time to process and understand what a loss means to you.

Grief is universal. But it's not often that we all feel it at the same time. Such is the pervasive power of Covid-19 and the ways in which it has turned our lives upside down. Loss is a reminder of how many things are out of our control and sudden and unexpected loss can bring on feelings of anxiety and fear as well as grief.

But what we are all experiencing is the grief associated with not being able to do the things that we would usually do.

Let’s look at the five stages of grief :

  1. Denial: shock and disbelief at the loss
  2. Anger: that things are different
  3. Bargaining: all the what-ifs and regrets 
  4. Depression: sadness from the loss 
  5. Acceptance: acknowledging the reality of the situation

Some signs that you might be coping with grief arising from the pandemic include:

  • Trouble focusing on normal tasks
  • Sleeping much more or less than usual
  • Feelings of anger and irritability
  • Headaches and upset stomach
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Re-experiencing feelings of past grief
  • Engaging in activities such as eating, drinking, or online shopping to cope with anxiety
  • Avoiding thinking or talking about the pandemic
  • Compulsively watching the news  to see what’s happening with the virus in your country and/or the world

Most people have been having issues with these aspects of their lives in the past few months. You might feel fine for a few days and then, suddenly confronted by the inability to do something you thought you could do, you feel a sense of sadness or anger that in normal circumstances would simply not have arisen.

The reality is that we are all looking at an uncertain future that we are powerless to control. We don’t know how life will look in the next few months, let alone next year. This powerlessness puts us into a state of flux, and can even elicit a fight or flight response in our minds and bodies.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines uncertainty as “the state of being uncertain” and then describes what it means to be uncertain: ‘Indefinite, not certain to occur, not reliable, not known beyond doubt, dubious, doubtful, not clearly identified or defined, variable.

Humans need to feel in control and to maintain order in their environment. This helps us to feel safe and secure. Our brains naturally want to see patterns and order.

Maybe you wish you had more time alone or less time alone. Both can be equally challenging. You might see the opportunity to think about life in a different way, to get to those chores that you had put off for age. Or you could be mired in boredom, feeling you have nothing to do and too much time on your hands. 

Extroverts need the contact of other people and they are really missing out. Perhaps some introverts can survive this lockdown with less discomfort. They don’t mind being on their own as much. They can still go for walks and enjoy nature, read, watch a movie. They don’t need the buzz of others around them for stimulation.

We can always think of someone who is worse off than we are and in doing so we minimise our own sadness and our grief. This doesn’t change the fact that we are sad.

There might be a substitute for it or a way of postponing it. Solutions are generally easier to find when you discuss a situation with someone who can be empathic and suggest ideas.

The good news is that people tend to be resilient in the face of grief. Once the immediate crisis has passed, people are usually able to reach a place of acceptance where they are able to adapt and find ways to cope. And that is so important to remember: people adapt.

Amid all the despair, keep in mind that the pandemic has brought some positive advances. Remember when employers were reluctant to have employees work from home, or dismissed the viability of working remotely? Fortunately, necessity has played its accepted role in the parenting of invention and the daily, compulsory trek to and from the workplace is unlikely to survive the virus fully intact. While we might choose to attend the office and enjoy socialising once more with our work companions, for many of us that will no longer be a daily necessity. We will be questioning all sorts of things that we once took for granted.

And medical science has quickly evolved. Even before a vaccine becomes available, our increased knowledge of the treatment of Covid 19 means that it is no longer quite so deadly.

And perhaps we are learning more every day of the benefits of experience ... and experiments. If you are feeling low right now — or if you want to support somebody else — try discussing what you're both missing. It might help us all get through this extraordinarily difficult year. You can perhaps do something new… sudoku, crosswords, learning a language, try some new stretches or perhaps dance in your home.

We are hoping 2021 will be a more concrete, less stressful year. For now, we can acknowledge our grief and struggle, and marvel at the way the human mind is infinitely adaptable, despite new and unusual difficulties. We are in the presence of one of life’s great equalisers, which can also give us an opportunity to be adaptable and do things differently.

Photo by Jan Weber on Unsplash

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