Quarantine Is a Skill

A senior couple lie next to each other on the sofa with their legs in the air. They are holding hands.
Photo: Jessie Casson/Getty Images

“If the kids interrupt me one more time,” I hissed to my husband. I didn’t finish the sentence. I didn’t know how to. I was already at the end of my rope.

This was about a month into quarantine, and my anxiety was roaring into high gear — we hadn’t had childcare in weeks, and I was at max capacity trying to juggle my kindergartener’s distance learning, my preschooler’s constant emotional outbursts, and my own freelance writing work. Something had to give, and I had a hunch it wouldn’t be the pandemic.

The moment felt like a crossroads. I had a choice: I could keep living in frustrated denial, or I could find a workaround. With support from my husband, I scaled back on work, hired a pandemic-safe babysitter, and let my kids watch entire seasons of Paw Patrol when I was on a deadline. That wasn’t necessarily the reality I wanted to live in, but after a while, I realized that being more honest with myself about my own limits — as both a worker and a parent — made this less-desirable reality at least a tolerable one.

Months later, I look back at that point and see how far I’ve come. As much as it can feel like a Groundhog Day-esque stretch of stultifying sameness, this time isn’t static — or rather, we aren’t static as we move through it. We’re getting better at pandemic life every single day, constantly building on the mental and emotional skills we need to keep going.

As the Austin-based therapist Grace Dowd explains, accepting that things aren’t working is one of the first steps to growth. “Flipping the narrative from ‘This horrible thing is happening to me’ allows people to accept reality as it is, then audit it to change behaviors that aren’t working,” she says. “When you notice what’s straining you, you can make upgrades that improve your life both immediately and for the long haul.”

In other words, as the strain squeezed out what wasn’t working, we’ve formed new habits, routines, and behaviors that have made this strange, difficult life better — and we can carry those with us long after things return to normal, whenever that may be. Tempted to feel like 2020 was a total wash? Here are some of the most important skills quarantine is teaching us all.

How to ask for help

As most of us quickly learned earlier this year, we can only function on our own for so long before we need to enlist another person to help shoulder our burdens. That might mean opening up to a friend or partner about your struggle with anxiety, or voicing what you need to feel emotionally secure in the relationship. It might mean seeking out more tangible assistance, like flexibility at work or help with childcare.

That’s not to say that asking for help has become any less uncomfortable. It can still be awkward, or scary; for some people, it always will be. But we’re learning that the alternative of suffering in silence is much worse than pushing through the discomfort of making ourselves vulnerable.

And knowing how to ask for what you need, Dowd notes, is a lifelong skill that will cross over into every area of your post-pandemic life — especially in the context of safe relationships. “By learning to voice our needs and having someone actually hear us out, we can start to unlearn the message that we have to carry it all on our own,” she says. “And as we hone those communication skills, we’ll keep anxiety, avoidance, and resentment at bay.”

How to adapt

One day, the official guidance was that masks weren’t necessary. The next day, they became essential. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how to roll with the punches.

But resilience isn’t just about learning to tackle new struggles. It’s also about increasing your ability to tolerate the things that have always been hard, both by identifying your coping mechanisms and by learning to live with uncertainty for prolonged periods. “Many of us have increased our internal capacity to endure difficult times and are more psychologically capable of handling stress,” notes the Arizona-based psychologist Rae Mazzei.

Being forced to adapt to new ways of living also cognitively reinforces that we can handle the things we fear the most. For example, maybe you didn’t realize you could tolerate being alone for weeks on end, or that changing your daily routine wouldn’t ruin your life. Necessity proved you wrong, for the better.

“We can know these things logically, but believing it is a different thing entirely, says the Seattle-based therapist Laura Richer. “When removed of choice, we find that we can adapt and overcome nearly anything.” Life won’t always be this stressful, but it will always throw stressors our way — some expected, some not. And we’ve shown ourselves, even when it doesn’t feel like we’re handling things well at all, that we can survive them.

How to set boundaries

So much of surviving the pandemic is risk assessment: learning how to be emotionally and physically safe, and then having the hard conversations needed to protect that safety. Maybe you stood up for your well-being by asking a fellow store-goer to pull their mask up over their nose, or told a relative you didn’t feel comfortable attending their wedding. Other times, setting boundaries is to protect your emotional well-being — we’re all more strained than ever, with less capacity for bullshit.

No matter what boundaries you set, Dowd says, the pandemic has provided a two-fold learning experience: One, how to identify the things we need to cut or distance from, and how to enforce those decisions.

“The pandemic taught us to see what and who is toxic or unhealthy, and it also brought urgency on cutting those things out of our lives,” says Dowd. “For many of us, that will result in paying more attention to what you value and doing whatever you can to protect it — even if that means a tough conversation.”

How to seek mental-health support

Just like asking a loved one for help, seeing a therapist can feel like admitting you’re not okay. And it’s easy to put it off professional support when you can tell yourself things aren’t that bad. The pandemic changed that, as many of us reached our breaking points with stress.

According to the California-based psychologist Kate Truitt, therapists are seeing more patients than ever. Of course, an uptick in pandemic-related depression and anxiety is a driving force, but, she says, so is a newfound willingness to prioritize mental health.

“The nationwide news coverage about the mental-health pandemic has created a space for a lot of first-time therapy seekers to reach out and get the help they’ve been yearning for,” says Truitt. “It’s more okay now than ever to talk about mental health, and this is a gift of the pandemic.” In a time with few bright spots to grab onto, this is one: We’re recognizing, en masse, that we owe it to ourselves to do what we can to feel better. And day by day, we’re figuring out how to make that happen.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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