Sunday 18 October brought news of a new community case of COVID-19 in New Zealand. The spectre of further cases and lockdowns seems to hang over us all, even when the news of containing cases is good. While the first lockdown seemed to take a toll on individuals, it was the second lockdown, shorter and for less of the population, that seemed to cause some people greater stress. While living with the constant uncertainty of our COVID-19 world has undoubtedly taken its toll on us all, it seems that meeting the challenge of second, third and fourth outbreaks and potential lockdowns might stretch people’s coping even more.  

During these stretches, psychologists have turned to a range of theories to try and understand why we are reacting the way we are, and what we might do to preserve our sanity during this mental health ultra-marathon. 

Ann Masten (PhD), a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, has coined the phrase “surge capacity” to describe a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. However, as she notes, the COVID-19 pandemic is different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely. This leads to our surge capacity becoming depleted, as waves of change and adjustment to shifting “new normals” stretch our coping to the limits. You can listen to an interview with Anne Masten about surge capacity here.

A connected idea is that of “ambiguous grief”, which Pauline Boss, also a professor at University of Minnesota, describes as the kind of grief we may feel about ambiguous loss; namely, loss that is unclear and lacks a resolution. If we take a moment to reflect, we all could relate to the idea that many of us have lost a great deal that is tangible – jobs, money, holidays etc. But we have also lost important intangibles that we maybe took for granted, such as certain aspects of our freedom, future plans and ability to connect with others. 

Ambiguous loss elicits the same experience of grief as does a more tangible loss: a mixture of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But managing it often requires a bit of creativity because of its ambiguous nature. 

These creative solutions, Boss suggests, firstly, could include radical acceptance. This type of acceptance might mean that we agree that this is a dreadful time, however, it does not mean giving up. It means not resisting or fighting reality by saying, “This shouldn’t be happening! It’s not fair!” and so on, but instead realising, “This is just the way it is right now”, so that we can apply our energy elsewhere. Rather than being mired in a state of psychological self-torment of wishing life was different, we can instead step into a more spacious mental space that allows us to do things that are constructive, focusing on the things we do have the power to change, despite a global pandemic. 

Secondly, she suggests that we should lower our expectations. Being clear that things are different requires us to live life differently. We may not have some of our normal routines or our normal support systems and, by acknowledging that no-one can perform at their full capacity if there is too much going on, we can be more realistic and compassionate with our colleagues, our friends and families, and ourselves. 

Thirdly, she suggests that we notice and recognise the different aspects of grief for what they are – grief! These are normal experiences that we can keep moving through as we notice all that has changed and been lost in our lives – big and small. 

Fourthly, Boss says to look for new and old activities that fulfil us. This new “self-care” regime might well mean trying out new activities, when the old ways you used to self-care – going to the gym, having a pedicure – are not available during a lockdown. Many may already have turned to hobbies like jigsaw puzzles, knitting or breadmaking. Active options include learning yoga or a new exercise regime via YouTube or Instagram, or dusting the cobwebs off your bicycle or rollerblades and getting outside. 

Finally, Boss suggests that we focus on maintaining our social connections. Research around trauma consistently points to social connections – talking, sharing, communal grieving – as one of the most protective factors in our ongoing ability to cope. Even when there are times we cannot connect in our preferred ways, we can still take (and make) opportunities to connect.

Whether you are recovering from two lockdowns (like those of us in Auckland) or one, this year has thrown at us countless challenges. If you are finding your surge capacity depleted, or that you are experiencing ambiguous grief, you are not alone. Importantly, there are also steps you can take to cope with the psychological burden of this uncertain grieving. We hope the toolkit of coping strategies in this article will equip you with some helpful resources to navigate the months ahead. And, as always, we are here to help.