A New Roller Coaster of Emotions
Last week the world around us started to shut down. Country after country implemented lockdowns, and by now about 37% of the world population is experiencing some form of restricted movement and limited social contact. It was striking when the German chancellor Angela Merkel remarked in her speech to the country how for her, having previously lived in the German Democratic Republic, freedom to travel was one of the most precious rights. It reflected the seriousness and desperation of the Coronavirus crisis that she was forced to take it away from her own citizens. Many other world leaders followed suit, including India, where now over 1.3 billion people are prohibited from leaving their homes, not even for work.
For those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home it has meant uprooting daily routines and workflows, re-arranging child care and other family responsibilities, making household preparations for potentially extended periods of limited access to goods and services, and so on. All this involves a lot of uncertainty, which can generate anxiety, an intensive feeling that helps up tackle challenges because it signals that stuff needs to be done. But in addition, we are likely to also go through a range of other emotions, some perhaps more unexpected, so it’s useful to look at some of the relevant research.
In a classic paper James Russell (1980) grouped emotions along two dimensions, namely Valence, that is, whether the emotion is pleasant or unpleasant, and Activation, that is, whether it involves a high level of physiological arousal. The latter gets the body fired up to deal with problems in life: The heart is pumping, hormones are rushing around and overall we have a sense of urgency as we try to figure out the best course of action. Many theorists view this as the main function of emotions, namely that they propel us to act in specific ways. That’s why there are a whole range of emotions in the upper left quadrant, where activation meets negativity. Feeling restless, agitated, nervous and tense are part of this cluster.
Anxiety is an extended, lasting version of fear and as such is high in negativity, and in activation. But because of this high level of activation, at some point it will run out of steam: There is a limit to which the body can sustain a constant a state of alarm because it’s energetically costly, and wears you down. Then different negative emotions are likely to kick in, namely those that are low in activation, further down on the wheel in the figure above, toward deactivation. Sadness is the feeling of having lost something. Its close cousin, grief, is also about loss, but on a much larger scale. It occurs, for example, after having lost a significant other, either due to death or separation (1). It reflects the magnitude of losing something or someone that is irreplaceable, so it’s not just a temporary feeling, but something more persistent and significant.
We can expect that people will experience grief for having lost the lives they were used to. For many, the Coronavirus crisis has meant the end of the world as we know it. This can be on a profound level, with people losing jobs and therefore directly facing the possibility of no longer being able to put food on the table. Already we have seen millions of new unemployment claims in the United States, and this number is likely to go up even more. Many people therefore experience a massive loss in life circumstances for the worse. But plenty of others also experience upheavals of various kinds, on a different scale, but the felt loss can still be very real to them. For example, pupils and students whose graduation ceremonies might not happen as planned, will likely miss the celebrations that usually mark the transition from such a formative period to the next stages of their lives.
For many of us, thankfully, changes will be minor and perhaps even trivial, but they still reflect a clear departure from daily habits, routines, and all the little things we have been taking for granted. For example, every now and then I catch myself making plans about the next time I meet up with someone, only to then remember that this probably won’t happen any time soon. It’s certainly not a big deal compared to what other people are going through, but it does mark the fact that we’re living in different times, and need to come to grips with something we have never dealt with before.
The Coronavirus crisis has changed people’s lives in so many ways, some that are major, and others that are only very minor. As we adjust to our new realities and settle into new routines we are likely visited by a mix of emotions. In addition to anxiety, the natural response to uncertainty, sooner or later we might encounter more unexpected feelings, namely a strong sense of loss, or even grief. Give yourself permission to experience this whirlwind of emotions. It’s a tough time for all of us, so it’s worth trying to be compassionate and patient with yourself, and with others.
(1) Many people will also experience intense grief following the loss of a loved one to the COVID-19 disease. This is of course much more tragic than the loss of one's routines in life, as described above. I’ll discuss it in a separate post.