It’s March again.
For the past year, we have marveled — when we could summon the energy — at the elasticity of time.
Our lives shrank, routines were upended, children and parents were relegated to the same rooms for days without breaks. Offices, gyms, theaters and arenas emptied. Every new development was cursed as “unprecedented.”
Somehow time went on, through summer, fall, a different type of holiday season and a new year. Now it is March, yet again, and we are moving into our second year of pandemic life. Even with the promise of vaccines, we are tired.
The second time around, a Zoom birthday party has lost its novelty. Another online Passover Seder reminds us that we’re still here. A year into a “Groundhog Day” kind of existence, this month has the potential to be an emotional beast.
Kimberly Gordon, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Maryland medical school, sees the month as a time to connect with the heady emotions and reflect.
“Trauma keeps score, and it keeps score in our body and our brains,” Gordon said. “We all are having to adjust to a different environment.”
She recommends doing body scans and paying attention to physical signals.
“Allow your body to reset. What type of triggers are you having in your body? What sensations are you having in your body about that trauma? See where the emotion sits,” she said. People can harbor stress in their hands, back or stomach, she said. Gordon herself gets headaches.
“Think about strategies that you can use to combat that. If you’re one of those people who get headaches when you’re stressed, you may be dehydrated, you may need to get a little bit more sleep. You may need to put your phone aside and turn off the TV so your eyes are not getting strained.”
Gordon adds the strain can be more intense for those who have experienced loss in the last year.
“For some people the shock is over, and they think, ‘I don’t know really what I feel, but I know it’s not how I used to feel.’ The expectation to return to normal is a little bit premature. The expectation for right now is to reset and refocus and to recuperate,” she said.
As a Louisiana native, Gordon has experienced collective grief during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Despite the gravity of the past year, she says she is optimistic about our ability to emerge from it. To do that, however, we need to allow extreme feelings, she says.
“Whenever you experience a disaster or a traumatic event, the natural inclination is, ‘Let me just stay busy so I don’t have to think about what happened.’ But the most adaptive way to cope with it is actually to take that time to process,” she said.
One only has to look so far as their cellphone to be reminded of what life used to be like. iPhones deluge their owners by featuring photos from a year ago. Facebook presents a post from the Before Times as soon as you open it up, taunting you with past vacations, dinners inside restaurants and parties as we mourn an increasingly distant life. Then there’s the digital detritus of abandoned plans and lost loved ones. Even the big events that were salvaged virtually or postponed add to our collective sense of grief.
“We’ve lost a lot of rituals that are fundamental to human happiness — wedding celebrations and graduations and having grandparents look at kids when they arrive. This is going to be one of these epic periods of loss in our social life and that will hurt,” said Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
Like Gordon, he encourages sitting with it.
“It's also a profound opportunity to take stock of what we were missing before covid, what we can increase or augment. We really do need to take the time and reflect on the lessons learned and the time lost,” he said.
The upcoming months could also be hard in a way that baffles us because emotions are themselves viral, Keltner said. Even if we’re not suffering individually, the collective grief over losing half a million lives, systemic racism and mass unemployment can touch us.
“Our emotions are wildly contagious, and the people around us affect our emotions outside of our awareness — fear, happiness, disgust, joy. The people we know affect our emotions in these networks of contagion. … During trauma, we all construct narratives together,” Keltner said.
Our rapid shift to living our lives online only amplifies these effects.
To manage the tide of emotions, Gordon suggests living in the here and now.
To start with, your phone doesn’t have to be a vector of frustration.
“You can see images of what you were doing last year. It’s good to do that. Reflect on what you were doing last year, what you value now, what you valued then, and what you want to bring into 2021 or the future,” she said.
It’s also important to celebrate the good — the impressive feat of developing a vaccine and the humor in new situations, however small.
Gordon suggests connecting with your community or organizations that may be active in causes you believe in to figure out how to make an impact in the future.
“That is a way to channel frustrations, by doing good for others. Take the focus off yourself and put the focus on someone else. If you know somebody who’s lost a loved one, get connected, call them, find out how they’re doing, ask them if they need to talk about it.”