We are living through interesting times. We are witnessing a global pandemic, shifting and tense global political relations, and the uprising of oppressed and mistreated peoples. In Australia, it has been a devastating 12 months. We’ve experienced some of the most catastrophic bushfires in our modern history and were then handed a global pandemic in which 102 Australian lives were lost, while 404 000 people have died worldwide. We have witnessed massive, upsetting global changes while wrestling with our individual challenges. It can quickly become overwhelming. May you live in interesting times, an English phrase sometimes (likely falsely) claimed to be a Chinese curse, has a negative connotation. While I don’t wish to continue this Western orientalist phrase, it does seem wildly apt. But if we have been cursed with living in interesting times, how do we survive it?
For those in helping professions and intertwined in activism, burn out is a constant risk. Burn out is the consequence of prolonged stress (though stress and burn out are different), resulting in emotional symptoms. This includes lack of motivation, chronic exhaustion, feeling empty, emotional withdrawal and increased conflict. It’s important to remember that these symptoms should be followed up with a professional. You have nothing to lose but feeling terrible. You may experience a form of burn out around exam time, especially if you are under a lot of stress and are doing a lot of cramming. The necessit y of lock downs and bans on social events has likely saved countless lives, but also meant that the outlets we used to blow off steam in aren’t as open to us as they were. Even my introvert friends, who seemed at first to assume they could survive the pandemic unscathed, struggled because at least before there was the option to leave if they wanted to. Now, leaving the house was a cost/benefit risk analysis.
According to a recent review in the Lancet, the experiences of those in quarantine are like post-traumatic stress disorder. This is even harder for those with pre-existing PTSD or mental health conditions. So, what can we do?
Separate work, study, and personal
With many of us suddenly forced into home, there is no longer a clear separation between our work, study, and personal lives. While there are some benefits from spending more time at home, including spending more time with loved ones and decreased time travelling, this lack of separation can often mean that it can feel like there is no escape. Separating spaces is the ideal way to manage that, but for many of us living in rentals or accommodations, it’s not an easy option. Another solution is to create a routine to signal to you that there is a distinct shift in what you are doing. For example, before beginning study put on an ASMR video for background noise or your favourite jam, change clothes, or put up a notice that you are busy can help signal your brain that a new activity is starting. Doing something at the end of your study period can also help, such as having a shower, shutting down your computer or going to another room for a while. Try to engage your senses – think about what you are hearing, smelling, and feeling and how that can help you.
Lean into the discomfort
Sometimes we must accept that something really, really sucks and that there’s nothing we can do in this moment. In a global pandemic, there is no one to blame and probably lots of people doing things that drive you bonkers. It’s easy to fall into anger and blaming, but despite a temporary respite in the oblivion of rage, it does very little to help us cope with things happening. This is where the psychological concept of radical acceptance can help us. Make the changes that you can but accept that you can’t change everything. Deliberately look after yourself – are you hungry or thirsty? Meet your basic needs. This isn’t an easy process, but at its centre it is about accepting a situation and your reaction to it. Talking to a psychologist or councillor can help you.
Turn off and enjoy nice things
Honestly, the power of time off is refreshing. Even just taking a break and watching cat videos can help. I recommend Mejoo and Cats and Kittisaurus on Youtube; they are my go-to when I just need to watch cats (I have no dog recommendations currently, but rest assured there are many good pups on YouTube too though I do enjoy the chaos of this video). Doing non-technology related activities are also good if you’re trapped in a work/study technology slog for most of their days. Reading is good and will allow you to read something non-study related
for once. Crafting, drawing, or painting can also be fun, especially if you just enjoy the process and not focus too much on the quality of what you create.
Being boring to survive
I’m aware that all these solutions are common, and largely not particularly fun. Perhaps the solution to living in interesting times is to embrace the uninteresting. It’s not interesting or fun to create a schedule and routine, but for many of us it makes life survivable. It’s not interesting to invest time in yourself and eat well, or talk to a psychologist, or spend two hours with no technology (though with the disclaimer of different strokes for different folks). Doing these things helps us cope, and really that should be one of the biggest goals we all have for 2020.