When living in a life full of daily routines, it can be somewhat easy to forget that we actually are surrounded by risks every day. We become so normalized to our ways of living life, that simple things such as being within six feet of other people, touching a door knob, or going to a restaurant are rarely called into question. We may not register the risks of driving a car, walking down the street, eating food, walking down a flight of stairs, and so on.
Going even further, the era of Tinder and other hook-up apps brings plenty of risks that are often not even consciously registered anymore. Not only is there risk of sexually transmitted diseases, but simply the possibility of passing illnesses back and forth has always existed when people are physically close or in contact with each other. None of this is new, whether we’re in large crowds (which has more risks than only illness), or on our own swimming in a pool.
No matter how we look at it, in order to live a life that involves adventure, satisfaction, and meeting basic necessities, every day we accept a certain level of risk as part of it — some risks higher than others.
In my psychotherapy practice, I specialize in working with the various forms of anxiety that people struggle with in life. Part of this work can often involve helping people learn to cope with and live with uncertainty and unknown in life. In fact, one of my other specialties is helping people overcome fear of flying (there are articles around the internet about my work with this, if you wish to learn more), part of which involves emotional processes that are not all that different from dealing emotionally with the disruption of coronavirus crisis — being stuck a space where your sense of control over the environment is limited, leaving you to manage sitting with vulnerability, uncertainty, and unknown as you navigate this space.
Of course, there’s more to the process on a deeper level for both being in quarantine and for fear of flying, but there are some important parallels worth looking at when it comes to the idea of re-entering the world after this extended quarantine.
First, here’s the thing — many people would love guarantees of safety in life. It would be a tremendous relief to know without a doubt that when you go outside that you will return home safely and still be here tomorrow. It would be life-changing to have certainty that every single plane is going to make it from A to B without incident.
But, in reality, no matter how small the odds are of catastrophe with many things in life that we take for granted, to some degree there’s always going to be a base level of risk to almost anything in life. The hope in dealing with the presence of risks is that we can learn to internalize the vast middle ground between guarantee and catastrophe — understanding that in many cases catastrophe is exceedingly rare, and in others there may be more risk that we take more precaution against (such as wearing a seatbelt in a car). What becomes problematic for people in dealing with these situations psychologically and emotionally is when they try to control the environment (and the vulnerability) beyond what is possible.
There is a space (emotionally and literally) where active control remains possible (such as staying in your house to avoid an out-of-control pandemic, washing your hands, doing certain calming techniques in a plane, don’t speed in a car, etc.). But it’s important to understand that this reality of control only goes so far. We have limits as people to what we can actually control, and for many people when we cross into the space where control isn’t in our grasp, our emotions are taken with it.
When it comes to dealing with deeply vulnerable emotions, there comes a point where the emotional response can be so overwhelming that you can’t control your way out of it. It may feel like the only thing that will make you feel better is to get the control back. This is commonly seen with heavy turbulence in fear of flying, and why I’m using this example of fear of flying alongside the concept of re-emerging into the post-quarantine world. You can’t stop the turbulence, nor can you walk off the plane. You just have to ride along with it and learn how to be okay in it until it goes away. Which in many ways is going be the post-quarantine world, at least for a while.
How can we expect to live in the world as we did a few months ago if we are going to be continuously exposed to our vulnerabilities and limitations as human beings — living in the understanding that life inherently comes risk?
The truth is, we already do this every day in many more ways than we are consciously aware of. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has been an all-too-real reminder of the vulnerability we face as human beings. That in the end, there are parts of life we can control to help ground ourselves, and then there are parts that are out of our control that we’re going to have to learn how to tolerate, sit with, and embrace in order to be able to enjoy a satisfying and gratifying existence in the world without hiding from life.
Going back to the idea of guarantees, I’m sure all of us would love to get back to a place where the threat of COVID-19 doesn’t exist, and then we can re-emerge into the world just as before, maybe still with other worries and anxieties to deal with, but at least without worry of this particular virus. However, from the information we have to this point, it doesn’t seem the risk of the virus will be gone when the quarantine ends, and possibly not for many months, if not years.
For many of us, this is a scary thought. That in order to live our lives again, we’re going to have to re-emerge into society where contracting coronavirus is a threat that will remain there on some base level every day (much like other things already are). Holding out for the guarantee may result result in paralyzing each of us in our quest to get back to our lives, as opposed to allowing for the acceptance of this risk that will be there, either way.
Yes, there are things we can control, and we should still take precautions — such as understanding when is the appropriate time to re-emerge into society (this article isn’t suggesting we should recklessly end quarantine early, by any means), or washing our hands, wearing masks, not touching our faces, working from home again temporarily if the virus shows up somewhere close by (or immediately isolating in the future if/when you show symptoms of illness), and so on. But overall, in order to live life, we’re going to have to understand and in many ways accept that at some point we’re likely to cross paths with the virus.
Of course, sitting with uncertainty and unknown is often much easier said than done. If you find it difficult to handle sitting with lack of control or vulnerability, or sitting with uncertainty or unknown, or dealing with varying levels of anxieties (panic, worry, overwhelm, etc.), then therapy would be a good place to go for help in these areas. For all of us, learning to tolerate risk and uncertainty will be a significant part of embracing the post-quarantine world.
Nathan Feiles, LCSW-R currently offers therapy online, and after the quarantine will also return to seeing people in-person in his NYC practice.