If you’re anything like me, when you look back at your quarantine/pandemic experience so far, you probably see distinct phases that you’ve transitioned through. Each phase marked by different emotional challenges and associated coping strategies.
As we enter the second year of the pandemic, it’s a good time to take stock of what coping strategies have worked and what haven’t so we can continue to transition effectively to the ever changing “new normal.” These are some of the phases I went through.
Phase 1: Radical acceptance and positive reframe
The beginning of quarantine and lockdown brought an abrupt change in life for many including myself. Isolation and fear set in. Overnight we found ourselves in the Super Bowl of distress tolerance.
Initially, many of us were able to reframe the forced isolation as an opportunity—to take a pause, practice meditation, spend more time with family. It was too soon to feel burnt out from daily zoom meetings, or to feel the impact of a more sedentary lifestyle. There was time for self reflection and focusing on the lessons learned. I, like so may others, confronted the realization that so much of my pre-COVID travel and NYC busyness had been mere distractions. I experienced newfound gratitude for many of the things I had taken for granted pre-COVID like my health, my apartment, my work, my friends and family. Daily gratitude practice buffered the impact of my stress and fear. This was also a period of intense goal setting in an effort to create meaning. I planned to be once fluent in Spanish, practice Ashtanga primary series daily and write a book.
In this phase, another go-to skill was radical acceptance—fully embracing the present reality without judgment. In hindsight, I can see that under the perceived threat of contracting a deadly virus, acceptance of quarantine was relatively easy for me. The intense fear of contracting COVID outweighed any desire to venture outside my apartment or social longing. I was content to be in my apartment and found comfort in the sound of the subway rumbling in the distance.
Phase 2: Nature
By April, approximately a month into quarantine, I see I had entered a new phase. I was restless. Home was increasingly feeling more like a prison and less like a haven. Zoom fatigue was setting in. I concluded that my current arrangement was not sustainable over the long term. Surrounded by the whir of ambulance sirens, zooming 8 or more hours daily, I craved the comfort of nature and in-person social connections. Masked, and with some trepidation, I began meeting friends for socially distanced walks and work outs in neighborhood parks. I began morning runs along the river. I was still practicing radical acceptance and gratitude, but spending time in nature and outdoor exercise were now my go-to coping skills.
Phase 3: Risk Management and Creating Opportunities for Joy
By May, I found it was impossible for me to sustain the intense levels of fear that I had felt at the outset for the pandemic. I still felt fear but was prepared to accept some risk in exchange for more joy and meaning in my life. This marked the beginning of my active risk management phase. For every activity I wanted to do I would strategize, often with my doctor, on ways I could do it with decreased risk. I took day trips with friends for long hikes in the mountains. This soon progressed to Airbnb’s for extended hiking trips. My mask had become a passport rather than an imposition, enabling me to resume so many of the activities that I had stopped during quarantine like tennis and dance.
Phase 4: Self-Expression and Valued Action
At the end of May, with the murder of George Floyd, I was entering a new phase that lasted till Biden’s inauguration. It was marked by self-expression and valued action. To offset feelings of helplessness and anger at the pandemics raging I turned to activism and advocacy. I spent countless hours on Twitter, finding an outlet for my own voice and validation from others. I blogged. My lifelong passion for politics and economics was reignited. I empowered myself by reading about policy issues and listening to podcasts. I was committed to contributing to my community and volunteered. The pandemic had begun with greater focus inward and now I was intensely focused on the world around me. This is the phase that continues to this day.
Looking back, I see that an important part of resilience was having a variety of coping skills rather than one go-to skill used inflexibly across the board. In light of the ongoing nature of the pandemic, it’s important to develop a variety of coping skills that you can use flexibly. This increases the likelihood of thriving and finding joy as we all continue to transition to the ever evolving new normal.
Dr. Lisa Napolitano is an expert in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and other mindfulness-based treatments. A licensed psychologist in New York and Florida, she is the Founder and Director of CBT/DBT Associates, a boutique psychology practice group. Dr. Napolitano is an expert in the treatment of stress, anxiety, worry, and emotion regulation problems. She has specifically designed her treatment approach for executives, attorneys, and other high-functioning individuals whom she believes shouldn’t have to sacrifice their careers to manage their stress and work on developing their potential.