December is a treacherous and gloomy month. Especially now, Yet, it is also the time when we try to sum up the year whether we like it or not. Let’s not do it for 2020. It has been a tough year, the world has turned upside down, and many of us are exhausted and disoriented. Adaptation is taking way too long, and we have little energy to go through it, especially when it is cold. Anastasia Rubtsova, a psychologist, explains how to survive this time and support yourself and your loved ones.
Let’s wait till next August to sum up the year. What kind of year results can there be when the train is going at full speed and we cannot even see what is outside through the windows?
Why is it so empty inside?
It is amazing how often I hear from all sorts of people, “It was an absolutely hollow year”. Guys, most of us may never have such a loaded year like this one in our lives. We found ourselves in a completely new reality, where everyone is wearing masks, where we are not sure whether, for example, hair salons, airports, or shops will work tomorrow or whether we will work ourselves.
Yet, of course, when we say “hollow year”, we mean the very feeling of the world that became empty, from which shops, movies, meetings with friends, and parties have disappeared. As one of my friends said, “You go out and walk through the city like through a cemetery. You cannot figure out where it all went”. It is a scary feeling.
There is also an internal devastation due to most of the plans being shattered. We dreamt about doing something and planned it through, but it did not work out. This disappointment has accumulated inside by the end of the year, and it drains a lot of energy.
We spent all the energy to the last penny
It is much more difficult for us in December than it was in April. It was spring then, there was sun, melting snow, the first green grass, people are always full of hope at such moments. Besides, when an extreme event occurs, it is always accompanied by an adrenaline rush, so that we could run quickly, make quick decisions, and save ourselves.
That is why many experienced an acute anxiety (adrenaline has such a side effect) in April, but there was no severe fatigue yet. It developed as we realized that this would not end in a month, six months, or possibly a year.
I must say, the authorities did not make it easier for us. All Putin and local governors’ addresses were based on the “be patient a little” approach. They were talking about “a phased withdrawal from quarantine” in May already. They said one thing, but the opposite unfolded in front of our eyes. This caused complete internal chaos and bewilderment. No one saved their energy for a long run.
Almost no one had a reserve of energy. The modern life rhythm is such that we really barely have enough of it for everyday tasks and obligations. Many people said in the beginning of the quarantine, “Well, we will finally spend some time at home”. Yes, simply being at home was a relief for some people.
Yet, it turned out that adaptation to home life is not easy and requires the same energy, which we almost do not have.
We got rid of illusions, and this is good
The whole situation with the pandemic turned into a collapse of faith in modern technology, figuratively speaking, in the “magic of the 21st century”. The world around us has undergone fantastic transformations in the last 30 years, starting with microwaves and ending with iPhones, tomographs, and surgical laser. It was a rapid rise from the good to the better, from the better to something even more fantastic. We got used to it and fell a little into the illusion of omnipotence: as if technology is all-powerful and has become a part of everything, and modern medicine can save everyone.
In a sense, it was an illusion that “there was no such thing as death”. Its disillusionment is both painful and frightening, but useful. Hallucinations, although pleasant, prevent us from making decisions in actual life. In reality, medicine around the world was not ready for the pandemic, and not everyone can be saved, even with nanotechnology, which is too early to talk about as it turned out.
People often ask me: why is a realistic situation much better than an illusion if we do not have any effect on how doctors work? The reality frightens and takes away the last energy. Let us believe in a safe world and let us have hope.
However, when we give up our illusions, hope does not leave us. Quite the opposite. The more aware of what is happening around us we are, the better we control ourselves and circumstances. Hope obtains real grounds.
It is hard to give up the fantasy that the world is getting better and better, and that “tomorrow will be better than yesterday”.
Moreover, modern motivational coaches insisted that there were no restrictions, they were all just in our heads, everything was possible, and that we just needed to dream more baldly and set ambitious goals.
Many people now, in the end of 2020, have a feeling that the world has deceived, betrayed, and taken away everything that was promised. And the feeling is so offensive that you lose heart. The good news is that it will pass as soon as our psyche adapts to the new life circumstances. The adaptation cycle, with a little margin, takes about a year. That is why I suggest that we take our time with the year’s results till August.
We have too many things on our minds at the moment
It is better not to rush at all now. This may not be the most productive year in our lives, but it will not be the last year.
We all are experiencing a very difficult stage, a little similar to what we experienced in the 90s, but still much milder. Friends and clients often describe to me some memories from the 90s that they are unexpectedly recalling this year. I suspect that our psyche is trying to find something similar in these memories to develop a new strategy.
But it needs time.
When we feel bad, troubled, or hurt, the most natural impulse is to do something to make things better. To get rid of the irritant. To escape from danger. To pull our hand away from something hot. Therefore, people most often ask me: and what should we do now?
I have three answers and none, alas, promise of instant relief.
What should we do now?
First, do not do anything. It is not yet clear what we should do. There is a risk that we will spend a lot of energy and we will not get a result. Or we will get the opposite of what we expected.
Second, give the psyche time to adapt. We may feel that “nothing is happening” during the time when we are getting used to something new. However, it is not so. Our brain collects information from the environment about all the changes, analyzes it, stacks it, and tries to decide what behavioral strategy is the most profitable now.
How can we help it? We can try to take information from reliable sources, observe everything that happens, and if we have energy, we can learn. Yet, it is better to learn not something fundamentally new, because we poorly absorb new information under stress.
Third, this is the worst time to force yourself to do something. And not only yourself, but your loved ones, too.
We have fallen into the darkness of this winter, we still have no strength for any “normal life”, and we want someone to sympathize with us, not scold us, forgive us for our weakness like children, and hear them say that there will be time to fix everything.
Our loved ones want the same.
Yet, often we are the only people who can feel sorry for ourselves. And if you are lucky, for those who are close to you.
A few rules for dark times
Let’s formulate rules that we will be able to rely on in the next six months if we are lucky.
1. It is important to remember that even if we fail, we will fix everything later. Therefore, dump the ballast from the ship like in the storm. Give up everything that you cannot do right now.
Give up that part of household chores that consumes the most energy. Stop immersing into the children’s distance learning: we can return to this when we feel better. And we have the right to reduce the communication with especially difficult and unpleasant people, even if they are relatives.
2. It is time to pull out all that we have for “a rainy day”. Things that make us happy, beautiful dishware, food that we love. In general, food was very important during quarantine, it was something that remained unchanged. The food products did not disappear despite all our fears. And we started cooking and eating more as it seems.
3. We will need everything warm and fluffy, everything that is pleasant to touch and that is good to wrap ourselves in. This restores a shattered sense of security.
Remember the music that you listened to during the good times of your life: try to turn it on now, and you will be surprised by its effect. The same applies to books and movies that we read and watched when we felt good. And generally, to good books and movies.
It is very good if we start giving ourselves gifts without waiting for the New Year, even the smallest ones. Give some gifts to yourself first, and then think about gifts for your loved ones. Since there is no stone left unturned from our usual everyday life, it is quite possible to change the rules in your favor this year.
4. We can lie down if it is the only thing that we are capable of at the moment. It is okay. But after lying down, let’s try to get up and walk to the window. And look out the window for at least 10 minutes. To count the passing cars and flying birds like in the childhood. As soon as you have the strength, get outside and walk around your house at least. Move a little every day.
Winter is the time when we terribly lack movement and fresh air in Russia. It is such a familiar deficit that we do not even notice it. However, it strongly affects the state of our body and brain. Besides, when we are locked inside our appartement and our eyes habitably glide over the same walls and furniture, the brain begins to miss the novelty. This also causes apathy and a feeling of powerlessness.
We need to move around just so that the picture that our eyes see changes. We need to go to the bus station and back or walk to the nearest snowdrift and look at the protruding branches at least.
5. You do not have to endure the whole hurricane of feelings and thoughts with clenched teeth. It is better to look for those who will be willing to listen to our complaints and perhaps complain in response as well without saying, “Everything is fine, stop whining” or “You just need to pull yourself together”.
Talking about heavy feelings helps you free yourself of them. Yes, sometimes you need to tell the same story three or five times until you feel better. Both the heavy apathy and fog in the head go away along with it, and then we can finally start acting.
If you are about to complain about something, it is better to warn your interlocutor in advance, “I just need to get something off my chest”, “Just hear me out”. So that they understand that we are not asking for help or advice. The same rule works the other way round. When someone comes to us to whine in this difficult and dark time, you better not rush with giving advice and suggestions to help them out. If you have the energy, you can listen to them. This is usually enough.
6. There is a rule of “first-order resources” and “second-order resources”. It is easy to use. First-order resources include sleep, fresh air, and movement, enough clean water, quiet time, and privacy (this is especially true for mothers of small children), tactile contact and touch (this is relevant for everyone else).
As long as these resources are not available, we will not get any pleasure from more complex things: meetings with friends, shopping, interesting lectures. Sometimes you do not have the energy to watch a movie. So, first, try to patch up the holes in the foundation by giving the body what it needs, and only then think about complex things. Such as, for example, preparation for the New Year’s holidays.
7. You do not have to make specific preparation for it. Or if you decide to prepare for it, remember our principle of “not doing something by forcing yourself”. Do only nice things, in any case, do not sum up the year.
For example, you can write a letter to Santa Claus. Light a candle and sit in silence, looking at the light. Tell yourself that next year is unlikely to be great, but we will definitely be less confused than this year.
The adaptation will end, we will rebuild ourselves into a new pattern. Some good moments are waiting for us, that is for sure.
Translated by Julia Frolova