Dealing with uncertainty in the face of a global pandemic: Interview with Leticia Castro

Roughly two months ago, our lives were collectively turned upside down. What was initially described as “just another type of flu” quickly became a global enemy we greatly fear and know little about. Our collective response to the global pandemic has gone through many stages, from disbelief, to alarm, resistance, and ultimately exhaustion. We started off determined to stay productive in the face of adversity, but as time goes by, we’re getting tired, and we realise that this is bigger than we thought.

So today we’re taking a deep, honest look at our psyche amidst these unprecedented circumstances, and we’re talking to Leticia Castro, a certified psychologist with a long trajectory of counselling and leading human resource teams, and current Head of People at Badi. We’re asking Leticia some of the questions you’ve probably asked yourself over the course of the past few months, with the hope of bringing us all closer to a place of emotional rest and growth.

We’ll be discussing a feeling of grief we may be experiencing, how to find room for joy and dreams amidst uncertainty and threat, and why developing psychological resilience may be the answer to many of our present doubts and fears.

At the beginning of all of this, when we entered the lockdown, there seemed to be a certain widespread determination to be hyper-productive and make the most of this newfound time on our hands. Home exercise routines, healthy recipes, online learning… The internet is replete with advice on “how to do confinement the right way”. Is this the right way? Or rather, is there a right way?

The only “right way” to cope with any uncertain times is your way. This is such an exceptional experience for everybody, no one could possibly prepare for it. We couldn’t even imagine something like this would ever happen. So when we found ourselves in this new and unfamiliar situation, we felt the need to control our emotional response to it by controlling our time, the only thing within our area of influence.

Leticia Castro, Head of People at Badi

The “right way” is whatever it is that allows you to maintain a balanced state of mind, whether it is taking a nap or writing a book.

Leticia Castro Certified Psychologist and Head of People at Badi

But it is important to remember that there is no one right way to spend your time, especially not during a crisis. You’re not worse at coping if you don’t try every recipe in your grandma’s cookbook or you don’t develop that sixpack promised by the free fitness programme you signed up for. The right way is whatever it is that allows you to maintain a balanced state of mind, whether it is taking a nap or writing a book. So rather than looking outside at what others are doing, we should try to listen to our body and our mind for what they need. That’s where we will find the right way.

As confinement measures are slowly lifted and we start to venture outside, the new social pressure seems to be on getting up before dawn, going for a run, and admiring the sunrise from a nearby park. But what if we’re not feeling the “carpe diem”? What if going outside into the world equipped with a surgical mask is still too strong of a reminder that it is not, and perhaps never will be, the world we knew only a few months ago?

There’s bound to be a lot of mixed feelings as we enter this new phase of slowly getting back to “normal”. But as much as we want it to, we know that life won’t actually be “normal” for quite some time. There won’t be a day when we just go out, have a drink with a bunch of friends, laugh and hug, and celebrate that it’s all over. That’s not going to happen, things will look different for a while, so we need to adapt to this new normal. And this is, once again, where we all differ in terms of how we do that.

The anxiety and stress we may feel when going out for the first time after a long period of confinement are perfectly normal. Over the past two months we have learnt that home means safety, so naturally, now that we venture outside again, fears arise, especially as we feel that the situation out there hasn’t really changed much, the virus has not disappeared.

But I think it’s important to learn to reconnect with the outdoors. There is a healthy and safe environment out there, but we first need to accept that it’s going to be a new experience. Similarly to when you move to a new city and find yourself in an unfamiliar neighbourhood surrounded by people you don’t know. If you compare it to your hometown and expect it to be the same, you will suffer anxiety and disappointment. But if you take it as a totally new experience (which it is), you will be able to discover it, learn about it, adapt to it, and maybe eventually get to really enjoy it.

So don’t feel pressured to go outside because that’s “what we do now”, but do give yourself the opportunity to explore the new world out there, at your own pace. Don’t compare it to how it was before the confinement, practise curiosity and compassion – towards the world, and towards yourself.

Is it an exaggeration to say that some of the feelings we’re experiencing are very similar to grief? Grief over a life that no longer is, at least not for the foreseeable future. 

Absolutely not. Grief is a feeling we experience in more ways than we’re aware of, and this is certainly one of them. We know that “the new normal” will be a lot different to how we lived only two months ago. How we interact with other people, the new routines we’ll have to incorporate into our daily lives, new ways of working… Nothing is going to be the same, at least not for the foreseeable future, so it’s only natural that we feel that sense of loss. It is important to acknowledge this reality and this feeling in order to be able to process them and move on.

But what’s exceptional in this situation is that we’re not experiencing this sense of loss and grief alone. Literally all of humanity is going through the same thing, and this feeling of a shared experience can help us. Just knowing that we’re not alone is sometimes all we need.

Turn  guilt into gratitude. Gratitude will help you focus on what you already have, rather than what you’ll need to rebuild or regain.

What do we do about this uncomfortable feeling? Especially if it’s accompanied by guilt for having the feeling in the first place (the mental script usually goes along the lines of “I have a roof over my head, my family is safe and healthy, I shouldn’t feel sad!”).

First of all, accept that it’s absolutely normal to feel sadness in this extraordinary situation. For most of us, being faced with this global health crisis has meant shifting our focus from the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs to the very bottom. Where a few months ago our problems and challenges revolved around self-actualisation or love and belonging, we’re now concerned about some of the more basic needs, such as security and safety. This is a big shift, no one is prepared to lose their sense of wellbeing overnight. So even when our basic needs (such as food and shelter) are met, we’ll still feel this sense of loss, and this is where your uncomfortable feelings stem from.

So my advice here is to turn the guilt into gratitude. Gratitude will help you focus on what you already have, rather than what you’ll need to rebuild or regain. Allow yourself to feel sad for the loss, but also be grateful for what’s still there, and be ready to recover what you’ve lost.

A sense of threat, danger, and uncertainty are the most likely causes of anxiety and stress right now. How can we best deal with them? Not necessarily resist them, but find a way not to be consumed by them?

That is a great question, and although I’m nowhere near an expert on the comlex subject of anxiety, I find that some of these tips may help:

  • Try to recognise where the anxiety comes from. This can be very difficult, but if we take the time to observe ourselves and our thoughts and feelings, we could start to spot patterns. We could notice that anxiety tends to arise from specific things, like watching TV, talking to a particular person, wondering what will happen with our jobs… Just recognising each source of anxiety is a crucial first step to overcoming it.
  • Once you know what causes your anxiety, evaluate whether this is something you can control or not. Letting go of situations we cannot control and focusing our efforts on behaviours that can make a difference will help us feel safer and calmer. For example, you can’t control the content of the news, but you are in control of how much of it you consume, so that’s where you should act.
  • It is also important to put our fears and anxieties into words. We fear the unknown, and there’s plenty of it around us at the moment. These are unprecedented times so we’re afraid because we don’t know what to expect. But we should try to articulate our fears – what is it that I am afraid of? Getting infected by the virus? Losing my job? When we name our fears, we take away some of their power, because we start to get to know them. And then we can start to think of what to do to either prevent those things from happening or how to deal with them if they do. This gives us a sense of control, and consequently eases the anxiety caused by the fear.
  • And lastly, take some time just for yourself. Even if you’re a parent or you care for another family member – put your oxygen mask first. Remember or learn what small pleasures you enjoy, and allow yourself the space and the time to experience them. This is a conscious effort, but a very important one if we want to maintain our wellbeing and also be able to help others.

Building resilience is a result of intentional practise, just like exercising your muscles – the more you practise, the stronger you become.

When the world around us changes so drastically and so quickly, and it leaves this big question mark about when and if “things are going to go back to normal”, it’s easy to feel stuck. It’s as if somebody has pressed “pause” on our lives and we’re waiting for them to click the “resume” button. But this is our job, isn’t it? How do we do that?

This is what we call psychological resilience. It’s the ability to adapt well to adversity or threat, and to bounce back from challenging experiences. Every individual has the power to develop resilience that will help them recover from difficult situations, both physically and mentally.

Building resilience is a result of intentional practise, just like exercising your muscles – the more you practise, the stronger you become. Focusing on connections with other people, prioritising your wellness, developing healthy thinking habits, and finding a sense of purpose and meaning are some of the core elements of building psychological resilience. I invite you to learn more about it, it’s a very powerful tool to possess.

Focusing on the present and taking it one day at a time is a good coping strategy, it helps us avoid unproductive worrying or even panicking about the future which is still very uncertain. But an important part of what makes us human is the ability to dream and look ahead into the future. How can we still dream while facing so much uncertainty and an inevitable sense of threat?

As humans, we are motivated and pulled forward by a sense of purpose. It’s what gives meaning to our existence and what consequently leads to what we call happiness. We’ve just seen how aligning our thoughts and actions with a purposeful goal helps us build psychological resilience, a powerful tool to have in the face of adversity.

So we shouldn’t give up or hit “pause” on our dreams, hopes, and plans right now. But to avoid a feeling of frustration, we do need to adapt them to the new reality. If we adjust our expectations and desired outcomes, we’ll still be able to make progress and reach milestones, which is what gives us that invigorating sense of accomplishment.

Let’s discuss confinement a bit more, because we’re bound to continue spending more time at home than what we’re used to. It can become challenging if you’re confined with somebody whose way of coping is widely opposite to yours, especially if it’s a partner who’s inevitably an intimate part of your life as well. Frictions can occur. How can we best colive in such situations?

I think that the key to any healthy relationship, regardless of external circumstances, is mutual respect and personal space. So allowing everybody in your household, yourself included, a space and a time to be on their own, is very important. When we respect each other’s needs and the different pace at which we deal with difficulties, we often find that the bond we build when we do spend time together is much stronger. Respecting each other’s needs without judgement is crucial for successful coliving at any time, and especially now.

Sharing our thoughts and feelings with others in the same circumstances helps us see things from a different perspective and reminds us that we’re not alone.

Some studies show that responding to a crisis collectively helps us process stress more successfully and come out stronger. How can we “tend and befriend” at a time where social distancing is what’s keeping us safe?

Staying connected to others in a crisis helps foster empathy and compassion, so it is important to keep this connection with other people. Luckily, we’re as prepared as ever to stay in touch with our friends and family regardless of where they are, thanks to our technology and how accessible it is. Some people may find that they’re even socialising more than ever. Yes, it’s not the same as seeing your best friend in person and giving them a big hug, but this is similar to what we discussed earlier, about not comparing things to how they used to be.

Building your connections to others is another crucial element to developing psychological resilience, as well. So don’t succumb to isolation, use technology to your advantage, find online activities and groups of people that keep you most engaged, and work on maintaining those relationships. Sharing our thoughts and feelings with others in the same circumstances helps us see things from a different perspective and reminds us that we’re not alone.

Any final advice?

We are all in this together, but the paths we use to navigate this situation are highly personal and unique. So use this time to learn about yourself and how you respond to stress. Resilience is forged through exposure to challenging circumstances, so take all learnings from this exceptional time as an invaluable investment into a stronger and happier you.