When Dr. Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, started researching for his 2019 book, The Psychology of Pandemics, he knew that psychology would be vital to understanding these global health crises. But had no idea that another one would be right around the corner.
“Pandemics are filled with uncertainties,” Taylor says. “Is the pandemic over, or will there be another wave?”
Now that vaccination access is increasing, infection rates are dropping and provinces are opening up, there are new things to think about: moving out of our pandemic routines (and pyjamas), seeing people again and getting back into work in real life.
Taylor has his own way of de-stressing. A lifelong diver and underwater photographer since his youth in Australia, he says getting into nature is the most restorative activity for him (“Just being quiet and enjoying the beauty of it all energizes me,” he says). Holding on to nourishing hobbies is one way of coping through change – but there are plenty of others. Here, Taylor shares suggestions on how to prepare for our world above ground to reopen.
What should Canadians be doing to handle the stress of returning to life in person?
At an individual level, you can start with setting reasonable expectations for yourself. Take your time; it’s normal to feel apprehension around transitions, and that’s exactly what this opening up is. Keep up routines you might have already established, like physical exercise, eating a healthy diet and creating structure in your daily life. If you give yourself some time and ease back, you’ll probably find that your anxiety abates over the coming days or weeks. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, then develop a plan to tackle the problems step-by-step and reach out to family and friends.
What about those who aren’t ready to take on pre-pandemic habits, including that work commute?
It’s a bit like a plunge into a cold pool, isn’t it? Here’s where you might need to bring in a bit of creative problem-solving: for example, wearing your mask because it alleviates your anxiety, and initially commuting at off-peak times, working up to peak travel hours. So set a plan for yourself, if that’s something you need to do.
Make your return gradual. Stay informed about workplace guidelines. Supervisors can also help alleviate anxieties by assuring employees that the currently recommended safety precautions are being followed.
What about the uncertainty of whether there will be another wave? How should we be managing news or information intake?
This is a big challenge facing us all. There is an overabundance of news information, including accurate, inaccurate and false information. We need to develop a good level of media literacy and limit our doses of exposure to dramatic or anxiety-provoking news stories.
Figure out whether a news story is reliable or not, and then check the claims – sensationalism is the red flag of fake and inaccurate stories. And be especially skeptical of stories being circulated on social media. You might want to establish a reasonable limit on the news, too, and only get your information from a reputable source.
Are there any tools you’d recommend for those of us needing a boost to get into the swing of things?
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) helps people improve their ability to tolerate life’s uncertainties, to think more about the assumptions they have that are causing distress, and to develop alternative coping strategies. CBT work focuses on questioning one’s interpretations of the world that might lead to excess worry and dropping behaviours that can be self-defeating. And of course, consider reaching out to your family doctor for advice and possible referral to a mental health professional.
What about my friends who say they’re not ready yet?
To some extent, the choice of risk is an individual decision; some people are happy to assume all kinds of risks in their lives, whereas others are highly risk averse. I think most anxious people will eventually become more comfortable in returning to life as before. At a community level, we need to show acceptance, compassion and understanding for those who are particularly anxious during this post-pandemic adjustment period.
We’ve been taught over the past year to stay in our bubble, and sometimes people stay there in terms of their perspectives on things. So it’s important for us to remind ourselves that while most people have not lost loved ones or become seriously ill due to COVID, there are others who have been devastated during this pandemic. We can help by taking a broader perspective and respecting their decisions.