Last May, I compared the COVID-19 pandemic to a grueling marathon. I’ve come to see that was not quite right: when you’re out running, no matter how hard it is, you know you’re done after 26.2 miles. But since the pandemic began two years ago, the finish line keeps moving. Now the ultra-contagious Omicron variant is raging across the country. Hospitals and schools are overwhelmed—and you might be feeling absolutely fried even if you’re not a nurse or a teacher.
For some ideas for how to think about this latest phase of the pandemic, I went to the latest research in psychology, neuroscience, and sociology, as well as traditional teachings and age-old wisdom. This is the thinking behind groundedness, and idea I developed for my book The Practice of Groundedness, an instruction manual for developing the internal strength and fortitude to sustain you through ups and downs. If resilience is about bouncing back, groundedness is about holding your ground, about not getting knocked down during hardships and challenges.
If there ever was a time to prioritize these values, this winter sure seems to be it. The following principles might help serve as a guide for what (knock wood) will hopefully be the last long winter of this pandemic.
A little less than five years ago I was quite sick for eight months. I struggled to have more than two decent days in a row—often it was more like two decent hours. During this period, it seemed like my situation was going to last forever. It was hard to see any way out.
In retrospect, those eight months don’t seem like such a long period of time at all. My experience is not uncommon. Neuroscience research shows that when we are in the midst of challenging experiences our perception of time slows immensely. But when we look back on those challenging experiences, they seem to have passed quite quickly.
This change in perception occurs because during hard times each minute tends to be filled with distressing thoughts and feelings. This is called the “decompression of time,” and it makes each minute feel longer, since our brains process information more slowly when they feel under threat. But when we look back on challenging periods, we remember them not as frame-by-frame moments of distress as we experienced them, but rather as broader chunks of time. As such, they don’t feel as devastatingly long.
Yes, this winter you must be prepared to dig in and persist—but you can also take solace knowing that if you can get through the long days now, this challenging period won’t feel like forever later on. Much like a marathoner takes things one mile and one step at a time, it is important to take things one day at a time. The days may feel long now, but eventually—at least according to the science—the season will feel short.
Lower the Bar
When things don’t go our way, we tend to default to magical thinking, convincing ourselves we’re in a better place than we are. Social scientists call this motivated reasoning, or our propensity not to see things clearly, but instead as we’d like them to be. The only problem is that when reality catches up to us, which it always does, the hangover can be rough.