Riding the waves of uncertainty

Science has long held that being more accepting of change is the key to happiness — has the pandemic taught us to do so? Has it made us more capable of handling flux?
Last Updated 28 November 2020, 20:15 IST

‘We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not,’ said ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. If we were to look at this year of the pandemic, that philosophy hits us close to home. Like the river, this year has been shape-shifting for all of us. Everybody has been affected differently.

The only constant though has been uncertainty. The invisible danger in the form of the virus, social isolation, the uncertainty of when or if the pandemic will abate, the uncertainty of when a vaccine will reach us... Eight months after the first pandemic-related lockdown was announced, are we finally learning that uncertainty is the only constant and building resilience to face it?

Chennai-based Anantha Narayan, founder of a naming consultancy, has learnt a lot through the course of this year. As someone who has now recovered from Covid, Anantha explains how the pandemic changed him. When the lockdown was first announced, he thought he could handle it, and he did. “I embraced work from home without any whining. I created a new routine to introduce order amidst all the chaos. I took all precautions against Covid. But, out of the blue, I caught a cold, which then ballooned into Covid,” he explains, adding, “I was just not mentally prepared for this level of disruption.” As he was being carted into the ICU, he recalls that a “train of what-ifs” flashed before him like a movie. The fact that anything could happen left him numb.

He managed to recover from Covid in 24 days, with help from doctors and a supportive family. “I am reminded of that Jack Nicholson quip to Helen Hunt in the movie ‘As Good As It Gets' — 'You make me want to be a better man'. That's exactly what I told the virus when I pleaded with it to exit my body.”

Even as there are rising mental health issues owing to the isolation, there are silver linings. Slowly but surely, people may be learning to be more accepting of uncertainty. For Shraddhanjali Rao, Vice President and Head-HR at a leading MNC, “The first few weeks were certainly challenging for everyone before we could understand and make the transition. There were daily spurts of hope about getting back to office, catching up with friends or getting an additional visa stamped on my passport.” Since then, accepting the reality that this situation is here to stay has brought about new learnings, she says.

Acceptance is indeed the first step before one learns to cope with a situation such as the pandemic. Mumbai-based Gayatri Jayaraman, author, columnist and Mind-Body-Spirit (MBS) counsellor has a new book coming out in 2021 titled ‘Spring Anew’, which is a handbook on coping with change. Her approach is from an integrated mind, body and spirit perspective. Gayatri says that change is at the heart of all life and existence. “If you notice, there are physiological changes happening at the micro level all the time,” she says. Our fear of change, she adds, is rooted in the Western style of thinking, which makes permanence a virtue. Change is perceived as bad and therefore we see resistance to it, she points out. The first step at a time like this is to accept change as natural.

Living in the moment

Television personality and creative content head Sindhu, for instance, faced some health issues in 2019. Although it was frustrating initially, she learnt acceptance. She sought refuge in spirituality, read a lot of mythology and drew inspiration from the personalities in them. Just as her treatment regimen ended in February this year, the pandemic struck. She took the lockdown in her stride; in fact, she saw it as an opportunity to spend time with family and introspect. For her, the uncertainty related to the pandemic was hardly an issue because her health condition had taught her important life lessons. She notes that she is in the best place possible today after what she has gone through. A lot of it is because she has “learnt to be happy in the moment.”

That is precisely what Shraddhanjali discovered during the lockdown. She learnt to find little moments of joy in the now. “Whether it was a brisk walk in the early morning when the roads were clear, playing with the pet dog, baking a cake and giving it to someone who I hardly interact with otherwise or watching a sunrise, these small pleasures have helped me clear my headspace and handle my professional and personal life with renewed enthusiasm,” she explains. She has also come to realise that pandemic or not, life has a way of throwing various curve balls at us and “it takes a resilient mindset to adapt.”

Lessons from other crises

Studies have shown that although many people struggle in times of crises, they are likely to emerge stronger than before. According to an article published in the journal Clinical Neuropsychiatry on ‘Stress and coping in the time of Covid-19: Pathways to resilience and recovery,’ “research on how people coped in the aftermath of 9/11 contain nuggets of information that provide guidance regarding how to contend with the psychological stressors wrought by Covid-19.” The authors, Craig Polizzi, Steven Jay Lynn and Andrew Perry, point out that “people found meaning in the attacks by aligning with their personal values.” These values could be friendship, social bonds, spiritual/religious pursuits, kindness to others, compassion, etc., the authors note.

It is values such as these that have kept Sindhu in good stead. She has learnt the importance of letting go, avoiding the drama, practising gratitude by maintaining a journal, working out, getting enough sleep, reading, meditation and yoga. She sees how her health issue has actually changed her. “I used to be anxious, had OCD and chased deadlines constantly, trying to micromanage everything. Now, I have realised that every new day is a blessing,” she adds. The pettiness, irritations and disruptions of daily life don’t bother her much anymore.

For Shraddhanjali, the pandemic has been a game changer. She has learnt the importance of a “sense of community and value we bring into each other’s lives. There are many people who have, during this period, suffered from loneliness, anxiety and mental health concerns. This learning has encouraged me to strengthen my support system and also add myself into someone else’s circle.”

A time to introspect

Says Anantha, “Before Covid, I thought I had all the time in the world to do many things that make me and others happy. The virus brought down all my fanciful assumptions like a block of Jenga bricks.” The quarantine period allowed him time to introspect and realise what was important. “I’ve made major changes in my life. I’ve given up my advertising career. I’ve taken up problem solving as my only mission. Whatever happens, I am certain I’ll be happier,” he says.

Shraddanjali draws inspiration from how Holocaust survivor and famed psychiatrist Viktor Frankl found purpose and meaning during his life in a Nazi labour camp. “The constraints that we operate in today because of the pandemic will provide us an opportunity to introspect. For me, introspection has led me to evolve not just as a person, but also as a leader,” she says.

Anantha exudes hope when he says, “Given all that has transpired, I feel a lot of good is going to come out of this long bad patch. Trust me, the world is going to be a better place.”

Learning from the Stoics

The Antonine plague, probably a smallpox virus, ravaged the Roman Empire between 166 and 180 AD. It was at such a time that one of the greatest Stoic philosophers, Marcus Aurelius Antonious, (from whom the plague got its name), wrote ‘The Meditations’, which continues to serve as a guide on coping with loss, pain and change.

Stoics were ancient Greek philosophers who believed in focusing on what lies in our control and ensuring that we build on what we have. Founded by Zeno of Citium and propagated further by Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism has much to teach us that can help us deal with situations such as the pandemic.

Take this quote from Aurelius, for instance: “Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are, and to make new things like them.”

Or this: “Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And canst thou take a bath unless the wood undergoes a change? And canst thou be nourished, unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change?”

Coping strategies

Gayatri Jayaraman, author and MBS counsellor, suggests some techniques to help you cope with change:

* It is important to change neural pathways and train your mind into changing your thinking patterns, when it comes to coping with change. Avoidance, or not accepting the reality of the situation, would mean you indulge in habits such as smoking or binge-watching to numb yourself. Be aware of your defense mechanisms and observe yourself. Staying aware of your habits and building little detours to cut back on avoidance habits such as bingeing — for instance, if you have an addiction of say, chewing ice, take a detour, build a ten-minute walk habit before you reach out for it, and slowly increase the walk duration so you eventually give up the habit.

* Changes that we resist leave a physiological impact on the body in the form of migraines and pain. Constantly question and challenge your resistance to change. Ask yourself: “What is making me comfortable? What is the benefit from the comfort zone?”

* Watch your language. Avoid catastrophising language. Tell yourself, “I have survived. I will in the future.” If you are stuck in a tough situation, such as a job loss, for example, find practical ways to bridge the gap between where you want to go and where you are, and find a “new ideal place.” Shifting goal posts is not a bad thing; it is actually a practical and pragmatic way to deal with life.

* Think lateral and not vertical. Explore diverse options when you have to go from Point A to B — this doesn’t mean there's a lack of focus, but do ensure you have a range of coping strategies. This will help you deal with your present reality better.

(Published 28 November 2020, 19:41 IST)

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