Cancelled exams, predictive grades, online classes – 2020 has been an enormously uncertain year for young people. Here are some pointers as the school year resumes amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
- It’s normal to be anxious about the coronavirus and its impact on your life. In fact, a certain degree of anxiety right now isn’t just normal, it’s desirable. Anxiety can help keep us safe. A small minority have taken a casual attitude towards the coronavirus, dismissing it as a little flu, as no big deal. In contrast, if you fear harm may come to yourself or to loved ones, you’re more likely to wash your hands, socially distance and wear a mask – all behaviours that help keep us safe.
- Too little anxiety isn’t good, but you don’t want to be too anxious. Anxiety can drive unpleasant sensations such as racing heart, rapid breathing, impaired attention and restlessness. You might feel panicky or worry excessively or have trouble sleeping. You might get stuck in unhelpful ‘what if?’ thinking, worrying normal aches and pains might be the virus, seeking excessive reassurance from others, repeatedly checking for symptoms in yourself and others.
- As humans, we’re not keen on uncertainty. We all want to feel secure and to have a sense of control over our lives. If you’re a worrier, you may try to regain a sense of control and certainty by worrying. “Worrying helps me prepare and keeps me safe”, “it’s irresponsible and uncaring not to worry and to think of worst-case scenarios” – worriers invariably have positive beliefs about worry. You may think if you think about a problem hard enough, you will somehow arrive at a solution or feel more prepared if something bad happens. However, worry only provides an illusory sense of control. It doesn’t allow you control the uncontrollable. Worry doesn’t protect you from an uncertain future, it merely sabotages the present and keeps you stuck and unhappy. Don’t confuse worrying with genuine problem-solving.
- Instead of focusing on what you can’t control, focus on what you can control. Asymptomatic people can spread Covid-19, but you can do your bit by proper hand-washing, social distancing, wearing a mask when appropriate and following the public health guidelines.
- You can also control your own routine as best you can. We can’t avoid stress in life, but we can manage it. Exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet and avoiding comfort eating, practising relaxation exercises, maintaining hobbies and routines, staying connected to others, asking for support when we need it and providing it when others do – these and other steps will help you maintain your physical and mental health.
- You can control the media you consume. Young people are more likely to get news from social media, but recognise that popular sources may not be reliable sources; remember that fear and sensationalism sells. Friends and celebrities you follow on social media may describe their own beliefs on the virus, but don’t feel obliged to share them. If social media leaves you feeling jittery and anxious, cut back on it.
- Be wary of conspiracy theories related to Covid-19. Many wild and dangerous theories are doing the rounds. Research shows people are more likely to be swayed by conspiracy theories when they feel anxious, stressed, alienated or unwanted. People often embrace conspiracy theories because they simplify the world, making it seem more controllable than it really is. British epidemiologist and Covid-19 expert Prof. Neil Ferguson, who was accused by some conspiracy theorists of attempting to destroy Western society, puts it well: ‘I understand the desire for people to explain, not really accept that just bad things happen by chance: this is a chance event, the emergence of a lethal pandemic virus, and it is very bad luck for the world, but some people do not like having their lives governed by chance. They much prefer to see some sort of dark hand behind everything, hence the popularity of conspiracy theories of all types’.
- Don’t play the blame game. Foreigners, tourists, politicians, partying teenagers, asylum-seekers, meat plant owners – every week, it seems a new group is blamed for the virus outbreak. The reality is Covid-19 is a clever villain that isn’t easy to control. Don’t look for scapegoats. Recognise that Covid-19 can affect anyone, that people are doing their best and that we are all in this together.
- Focus on the things you are grateful for. Yes, it’s natural to wish for things to change and for Covid-19 to go away. However, keeping a simple gratitude diary will remind you that while life is uncertain and challenging right now, good things also happen every day.
- The pandemic challenges us to learn to tolerate and accept uncertainty – one of the most important skills you can learn in life. Focus on the present and recognise you don’t need to know the future to be happy.
(First published in Southern Star, 20/08/2020)