Marla Vannucci, Ph.D., Chicago Campus Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.) reflects on the social unrest, isolation, and uncertainty of 2020. Pulling from her expertise as an educator and practicing family therapist, Dr. Vannucci provides advice for coping with uncertainty, embracing change, and setting realistic expectations for 2021.
Understanding the Process of Change
The hallmark of 2020 has been instability – social, political, and economical. It interrupts our lives, sometimes pushes us backward, and may also provide opportunities for change. The instability of 2020 has been devastating for many, forcing us to re-examine the status quo. As we put 2020 behind us, we must set realistic expectations for 2021 and beyond and consider what we learned in 2020 to inform the future and set the stage for growth – as individuals and as a global community.
One way to understand the instability of 2020 is through the lens of lifespan development. In any growth process, circumstances require us to change, and if we don’t change, we stop growing. We may experience the demand to grow as a crisis of sorts, and if we don’t move through it, we stagnate (Erikson, 1950; Levinson, 1978; Levinson, 1996). Much like a middle schooler faced with entering full adolescence or an adolescent facing adulthood, that change can be scary and unnerving. We can never be fully prepared for these changes, but adaptation is the goal. Instability is the impetus for growth.
This is how social progress happens. The need for change de-stabilizes us, and to re-stabilize, we can only move forward or backward. This leads us to feel tremendous anxiety. In situations like this, some people retreat to what felt safer before, and for many of us, that feels like the world is going backward.
Many people’s lives have been drastically impacted by COVID-19 and related losses, including death and illness of loved ones, social isolation, jobs disappearing, businesses failing, extremism, and community violence resulting from the anxiety in our world. In the face of this anxiety, people may move backward or regress toward a position that once felt more certain or stable. We begin to realize that we thought we had tackled some issues more than we had—such as racism and police brutality, extremism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and even the belief in democracy itself. We may find ourselves asking, “How did we get here again?”
Just like with lifespan development, societal transitions are rarely smooth. Sometimes regression or moving backwards occurs right before a change. Anyone who has been around children can tell you that they typically regress just before they make a leap forward. My son’s sudden clinginess just before he moved to a “big boy” bed, started elementary school, and frankly when he had to shift to remote learning, are perfect examples of regression before change. Although the societal regression of 2020 is in part a response to anxiety, we can also view it as the backward step before we leap – before we make bigger progress.
Embracing the Opportunity for Transformation
Instability gives us the chance to make things better. Although de-stabilization is frightening and anxiety-provoking, it also opens new opportunities. The idea that instability provides opportunities for change is the foundation of many family therapy models. In family therapy, we have to shake things up first before we can see new options. Salvador Minuchin, a famous family therapist, called that “unbalancing.” (Minuchin, 2004). We have to unbalance the family to move into a new and better space.
Any therapist knows that individuals and systems alike resist this change. Our clients feel the pull to go back to the old “normal” because instability creates anxiety. Still, this pull is just a retreat to an unhealthy pattern. In family therapy, once we get out of the rut that family patterns create, we have the flexibility to do something different that we didn’t have before. We see new possibilities. Erich Fromm (1941), a well-known analyst and student of Sigmund Freud, would say the same is true for society as a whole. We’re like one big global family, and the instability we’re experiencing is a chance to see new opportunities for positive change.
Coping with Anxiety and Managing Self-Care
Living with uncertainty is incredibly hard for human beings. We must find ways to experience stability in small and daily moments. As a society, managing our anxiety will help us fight the resistance to change. As individuals, managing our anxiety will help us move forward to find new solutions and to use instability as an opportunity for growth.
Ways to manage anxiety that will help us grow include:
- Be engaged in the present. Mindfulness practice is one suggestion for staying in the present. Another is finding ways to be fully engaged, what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) calls “flow.” This refers to activities in which you are fully present, don’t notice the passage of time, and feel happy. Examples of flow activities are long walks, binge-watching shows, video games, reading, cooking, and knitting. Isolation requires us to adapt, but flow activities are still available to us and essential for well-being.
- Adapt new self-care routines and stay physically healthy. Find, establish, and continue daily self-care routines into and beyond the new year. Keep up your immune system with nutrition, vitamins, sleep, hydration, vaccinations, and don’t forget laughing. These self-care routines do not need to be on a grand scale and do not need to mimic life pre-pandemic. Take a five-minute stretch every hour or conduct one out of every three meetings by phone instead of video. Apps, such as Headspace, Sanvello, Calm, or Stop Breath & Think, can help you with anxiety management. Superbetter or Habitica helps you “game” your self-care routine.
- Keep up connections. Be creative to maintain and build relationships. It’s easy to want to isolate if you have been holding video meetings all day. A quick text to say hello can go a long way in feeling connected to your friends and loved ones. And don’t be afraid to ask for help when needed.
- Access mental health services. You can access mental health providers all over the country now via telehealth. You may need to contact more than one provider to find someone who has appointments available because there has been a huge surge in therapy utilization. Still therapists are taking new clients, so don’t give up if the first ones you try are not available. Mental Health America, Psychology Today, and each state’s psychological association have mental health referral services. For mental health emergencies, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255) is available 24 hours via phone or chat.
- Normalize our experiences. It’s not just you; everyone’s lives are in flux. We are all having to adjust our expectations in the present and for the future. We are all experiencing uncertainty, anxiety, and loss. You are not alone.
Setting Realistic Expectations for 2021
There is much hope for 2021, but we will be disappointed if we are waiting for things to improve drastically in a short time frame. Focusing on the future is one way to ease our anxiety, but it’s a risky enterprise. When we reach that point, and things have not improved, people may feel depressed, discouraged, powerless, or hopeless. Anytime we are focused on the future or the past, it is harder for us to be in the present. We’re saving up our stress for a later day.
Sometimes waiting for the future to solve a problem is not a bad thing. That’s when we are trying to solve problems we can’t solve in the present, and we want to stop from overwhelming ourselves. Often my clients will use language like “that’s an issue for ‘future me’ to solve.” This can be very helpful when we may anticipate having more information in the future than we have now. But expecting that things will magically improve in the future is often an avoidant tactic and ultimately leaves us less prepared.
Frankly, there’s no going back–only going forward. Instability opens up new ideas, new ways, and new possibilities. Keep in mind that when we wish things were the way they “used to be,” we are simply feeling the anxiety of instability. We may even be resisting the opportunity for growth and change.
This new year brings hope for change, but we must figure out how to adapt, manage our anxiety, and embrace progress. What have we learned that we can use to make things better – better than before the pandemic – not just like they were before? How can we move into the change and shake things up to create new and improved ways of being in our lives and in our communities? It may be slow going, and we may take steps backward, but progress is on the horizon.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
- Erikson, E. (1950). Children and society.New York: Norton.
- Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from freedom.Farrar & Rinehart.
- Levinson, D. J., Darrow, C. N, Klein, E. B. & Levinson, M. (1978). Seasons of a man’s life. New York: Random House.
- Levinson, D. J. & Levinson, J. D. (1996). Seasons of a woman’s life. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Minuchin, S. & Fishman, H. C. (2004). Family therapy techniques. Harvard University Press