How to Move Ahead When the Tank Feels Empty
Aisha Ahmad leans on her experience working in disaster zones to reflect on the year that was.
It’s been almost one year since the coronavirus pandemic upended our lives, and its impact on our mental and emotional health continues to spread. Some of us are grieving the loss of loved ones; others are struggling with illness, job loss or crushing isolation. But despite our respective struggles, we each now have a year of experience in this crisis — and that counts for something. We have navigated deadly threats, managed physical hardships, adapted to rapidly changing conditions and responded to adversity with creativity. The fact that we are still in the game is evidence of deep personal strength and resilience.
But this journey hasn’t always been pretty. Survival never is. Having spent months and years in disaster zones around the world, I can attest that working through a sustained crisis is tough business. I’ve spent many days hearing gunfire right outside my window and worrying about cholera in my neighbourhood. During those periods of acute stress, my mind and body automatically focused on the external threats, working on overdrive to protect me. That was a normal, appropriate reaction to danger, designed to keep me alive. Over time, however, this type of prolonged stress and arousal can produce a slew of emotional and psychological side effects.
War and plague are different calamities, but there are many notable similarities. The constant threat of serious bodily harm or death. Crippling boredom and loneliness. Restrictions on mobility. Systemic fear and uncertainty. Bursts of activity and adrenaline followed by a long, dreary grind. Family separation and loss of loved ones. Severe economic hardships. Prolonged interruptions to childhood education. Sure, no one is shooting bullets at us, but this pandemic is a system-wide lethal threat that has invaded the most intimate parts of our lives: our bodies, our homes, our relationships and our finances.
After a year in this pandemic pressure cooker, it is no surprise many folks are feeling the psychological burn of sustained crisis. Yes, we have re-learned how to shop, connect, work and exercise under these rough conditions. We have held the fort for our loved ones like champions and made enormous personal sacrifices for the greater good. But the tank is empty. Nerves are shot. Anxiety, sleep disruption, work fatigue and family pressures are all par for the course. Some have avoided the worst damage, but very few are fortunate enough to be unaffected and undisturbed.
But does struggling with the mental and emotional toll of this chronic crisis mean you are failing at “pandemic living”? Absolutely not. Discomfort and upset are normal and appropriate human reactions to sustained crisis conditions. Whether it is a war, a famine, an earthquake or a pandemic, no sane person feels great in the middle of a deadly disaster. Tragedy and loss are not supposed to make us cheerful. It is perfectly normal for people to feel sad or angry when terrible things are happening to folks around them.
Now, some people have dismissed pandemic times as “just sitting at home,” thus minimizing the suffering others might be experiencing. As someone who has been to a lot of war zones, let me try to provide some perspective on this matter. To be clear, this is exactly what a systemic disaster looks and feels like from the inside. Sometimes horror strikes your own loved ones. Other times, you sit in suffocating spaces while receiving news of calamity befalling your neighbours. The reality — not the director’s cut movie edition — is full of dull, slow forms of everyday trauma. It is like a monotonous, electric hum of anxiety constantly buzzing in your head, interrupted by sporadic bursts of adrenaline and fear.
The pandemic is not a war, but it is also not a “lightweight” disaster to be dismissed or scoffed at. Being unable to hold your loved one’s hand before they die is devastating. Learning that you now have permanent organ damage from coronavirus is a crushing personal blow. No hugs for a year is a recipe for psychological distress. With a spouse working double shifts in emergency or front-line service, the most stalwart partner can have panic attacks. And frankly, I can say from experience that when a loved one is trapped in a long-term-care home with a COVID-19 outbreak, it feels remarkably similar to having them stuck in a city with frequent suicide bombings.
Whether these calamities have touched your own home or you have been witnessing them in your community, we have all been living with the constant hum of crisis in our heads. In my experience, I have learned it is perfectly normal to have this lead to emotional and psychological side effects. Even for people who have a lot of experience with disasters, it takes effort to maintain a state of inner calm and peace under these conditions.
These mental health pressures are real and valid — but distress doesn’t have to be our only speed over the next few months. Even if we hit low points, there are ways to pull ourselves back up. We can start by abandoning the false assumption that if we feel bad, we must be doing badly. Everyone is going to have down days, and these emotional fluctuations are not a judgment on our ability to handle this crisis well.
It would also be wise to reconsider what “doing well” in the middle of a pandemic even means. For example, perhaps you went into this doing morning yoga, designing cute home workspaces and baking fresh banana bread. While that may have felt like a strong start, chances are there was a bit of denial and inexperience behind your cheery mood. It is unreasonable to expect that you should remain chipper, like some creepy smiling robot, while we’re still in the midst of it. So, if today you fought with your partner, missed a webinar and ate a party-sized bag of Doritos, take a breath and forgive yourself. You are not failing or weak. These are just normal human responses to sustained crisis.
The good news is that we are now approaching the final stretch of this marathon disaster. Our world’s scientists have developed multiple vaccines in record-breaking time, and while there will likely be delays and logistical challenges to distribution, the finish line is in sight. According to the current trajectory, Canada aims to achieve nationwide vaccination by September 2021. This is an astonishingly fast timeline. Of course, at a personal level, that might still seem like a long time to wait. However, respite and relief can come well before we receive a vaccine ourselves.
Even amid the harshest disaster conditions, I have always found moments of peace, friendship and even the sublime. There are bursts of colour and moments of hilarity. I can’t explain why, but jokes get funnier when you really need to laugh. It’s like when you haven’t eaten all day and finally manage to get some fast food…somehow that cheap, greasy burger is hands-down the most delicious thing you’ve ever put in your mouth. Happiness amid hardship is like that. Each day, we can look for and capture these strange little beautiful moments.
These bright spots are likely to become even more abundant in the weeks ahead. Long Canadian winters are always tough, and pandemic restrictions have made this a particularly gruelling season. But we know how much the coming of spring lifts our spirits, with brighter days and the smell of fresh grass and budding trees. That natural relief is just on the horizon. One thing I can promise is that after a long bout of sustained hardship, simple pleasures such as these always feel like heaven on earth.
And on the days that are darker, we can choose to embrace ever more gentleness. When external conditions are ruthless, compassion is a revolutionary act. As we move into the final stretch of this marathon, each of us can develop a merciful vision of a good life. Not a perfect magazine cover, but a soft and nourishing life that works under sustained hardship conditions. So today is a great day to flush any perfectionist expectations you have that you must write a book, learn two languages and get as fit as an Olympic athlete in the next six months. It’s irrelevant that Becky just posted staged photos of her flawless home gym and kale salad with an #inspirational quote. Unfollow. Save your energy to capture real moments of the sublime that touch your own authentic, messy, perfectly imperfect world.
No one else gets to dictate what your best life should look like over the next few months. You do not have to do a single CrossFit video in your living room. However you are able to care for your body in a safe and respectful way is perfectly good. If you only ate junk food today, you are still a worthy and accepted human being. Take a multivitamin and try again tomorrow. And you may have just shouted at your partner or best friend, but you can come back with a peace offering and promise to work together as a team in the days ahead.
The harsher the crisis conditions become, the more merciful we can be, with ourselves and with others. Everyone falters along the way. No judgment. No shame. We just get back up and move toward the light. That is a true measure of successful living under sustained disaster conditions.
Aisha Ahmad is an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the chair of the board of Women in International Security–Canada. She is the author of the award-winning book Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power (Oxford University Press, 2017) and has conducted fieldwork in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Kenya and Lebanon.