NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

It’s the virus which has sparked fear and disruption around the world. And New Zealand is not immune from this – our lives remain restricted under alert level 3 in a bid to eliminate Covid-19.

So, how do we get through the coronavirus pandemic?

Kyle MacDonald is a psychotherapist and mental-health advocate and will answer your questions in a twice-weekly column.

If you have a question for MacDonald, please send it to: cherie.howie@nzme.co.nz before 9am tomorrow.

So, here we are at level 3. I thought level 4 – where the only person I talked to “in person” was the supermarket checkout operator – would be hard, and it was. At first. Now I can see other people through the bubble extension thingee. Except I have no desire to do so. I feel neither happy nor sad about not seeing people anymore. Why do I feel nothing? Should I force myself to see people again? Or wait until I want to?

These changes have been unpredictable, and hard for most. But the human capacity to adapt is amazing, which is what I think you’ve done – so well done. The problem now is how to turn the adaption off, because you need to.

What do I mean by adaption? Well, switching off the feelings around socialising – feeling drawn to people, wanting company, which you expected would be hard – makes sense when you can’t follow the feelings.

However, when unhelpful feelings get stuck, which is not uncommon with adaptations and defences against difficult feelings, we need to use conscious effort and behaviour to get moving again.

So yes, you should force your self to see people even though you don’t feel like it. But do it gently, and start easy, with people and situations you previously enjoyed and weren’t taxing.

It might take some time for the feelings to change, but they will.

I’m a university student and had to leave my hall and move back in with my family when the lockdown began. In the rush, I didn’t really get a chance to say goodbye to my friends. I miss them, and my old life. Everything is on hold. I know others have it harder, but I feel so angry and depressed. Is it ok to feel p****d off at this situation, even though others are suffering more?

Anger is a natural response to loss and grief. By definition, when we experience loss it’s of something we are attached to and don’t want to lose, and pretty much every model of overcoming grief acknowledges anger as part of the process.

So yes, it is okay to feel angry, and sad.

There are two important things with grief, first is to allow space and time for the feelings to come and go, accept them don’t fight them. And second, don’t get stuck in the feelings.

Control what you can – like meeting up with your classmates online, and keeping going with study – and let the rest go.

And if you find it hard to shift the anger or sadness, get active and allow yourself to practice gratitude for the good things about the current situation. It’s a combination of bad and good, allow yourself to see the good too.

How much sunlight does my mental health really need? And is there an impact on my mental health of only seeing what is familiar?

Sunlight is important, not only does it help our bodies produce vitamin D, but it also triggers the production of serotonin – the brain chemical associated with depression.

So within reason, get as much as you can!

The thing about seeing only what is familiar, is that most of us crave novelty and new inputs and experiences, even if that just means watching a show on TV we haven’t seen before.

But it is possible to see new things even in very familiar environments and neighbourhoods. I’m sure many of you have had the experience of walking around your local streets recently and seeing houses or landmarks you’ve never noticed before.

In part that’s because we are spending less time in our cars, which means we’re paying more attention to the world around us.

But what that leads to is noticing our world in a different way, a more mindful way.

Usually when we suffer a loss like a death in the family, being laid off, or business failure there are rituals we follow to help deal with the trauma. Funerals, vigils, having a drink with friends etc. But we don’t have these for this situation. What can we do instead?

You’re right, those rituals are incredibly important, and I think it’s why there are some revisions for funerals and weddings at level 3.

They allow us to mark the changes, take time to pause, reflect and connect with others that are navigating the same changes. They also allow us to access support from our wider community.

While it’s harder at present, you can do all those things still.

And I know, I’m a bit sick of saying “connect online” too, but it is part of the answer. It’s important to take the time to mark and process the changes, whatever they might be, and to do that with people.

Because we are all in this together, even the grief. We have all inevitably lost things – or will – as part of this pandemic.

Sadly, it is grief that will likely be one of the most marked features of the aftermath of Covid-19.

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