For the past fourteen years, my research has explored how people cope with “liminal” experiences—or how they deal with prolonged uncertainty. Specifically, I focus on how people use information and communication technology (ICT) to build resilience when experiencing long-term disruptions to their routine lives, where resilience is defined as how people bounce back from threat or vulnerability.
During times of great disruption, our daily way of life is threatened and we are especially vulnerable. When our lives are upended, such as with the COVID-19 crisis, we are in a chronic state of flux situated between our past experiences and an uncertain future. Even when disruption is planned these experiences can be debilitating. They require that a lot of our attention and mental energy be spent on adjusting and re-negotiating critical aspects of our lives.
When disruption is unplanned, as we are experiencing with COVID-19, we face a great deal of uncertainty. This is true for all crises. However, unlike with natural disasters where people can set aside their routines to respond to the crisis, in the context of COVID-19, we cannot simply shift to emergency mode. We cannot pause routine activities to address the emerging threat, then push play and have life return to normal. Rather, we are living under a constant, invisible threat, that we must contend with every day. We are at once trying to maintain our routine lives while also addressing the threat. Disruption is now THE routine.
Many of us are experiencing this uncertainty in myriad ways. We are experiencing anxiety and grief. This grief has emerged from the loss of security brought about by the predictability of routines—those recognizable patterns of action that we engage in every day. Life before COVID-19 allowed us a great sense of predictability in how we engaged in everyday action. We could freely travel to and from work or the grocery store, visit family and friends, and go to restaurants. Life in the time of COVID-19? Not so much. This predictability has been lost, and we have thus lost a sense of personal security that we are grappling with.
Yet, not all is lost. Based on my research exploring people’s experiences with long-term disruption, here are some general insights into ways in which people have restored security in their lives:
Find innovative ways to maintain your routine.
Try your best to maintain your daily routine. Through my observations, one of the primary ways in which people have been successful when experiencing dislocations, was in enforcing a routine. With physical distancing guidelines in place, it will be important for people to stick to a predictable routine that they can rely on while also maintaining their personal safety and the safety of others. Rather than being uncertain about what we are doing on a daily basis, we can control some aspects of our lives. Identify routines that work and stick to them! I understand not everyone has the ability and situation where they can continue working. For those of us who possess the ability to flip the switch and shift to online work, do your best to maintain that routine as you normally would.
Develop new and reliable habits.
Maintaining a routine does not only mean that you should try to find creative ways to maintain your old patterns, such as by hosting virtual happy hours and the like. Rather, across the several studies I have conducted, people were often successful when they were able to develop brand new and innovative routines. You could consider starting a blog or keeping a diary to document your experiences. You might consider creating art or finally picking up that hobby that you’ve been putting off for what feels like forever. Incorporate these new patterns into your life and create stability and security.
Find and create connections with others.
Many of us are experiencing a great deal of loss. Given that we can no longer congregate in groups, it is important to find and seek community. Across my studies, many people have found or created community to serve many purposes. Community can provide myriad forms of social support, including informational, emotional, and financial. People can learn from others with different experiences and use that knowledge to inform their local situation. For example, when studying Iraqis living through the 2nd Gulf War, by connecting with people in other war-torn regions of Iraq and of the world, people I interviewed were able to learn from those experiences, such as how to set up generators for a neighborhood, and apply them to their own lives. Across my studies, people have described how the Internet, particularly the ability to connect with others, has been the most important factor contributing to their sense of safety and security.
Engage in activities for the greater good: Repurpose your life and your tools.
If you have the privilege to do so, across all of my studies, another observation has been that people are successful when they can engage in altruistic behavior; when they can shift from being focused on their own needs to thinking broadly about the needs of others. We are seeing this in how people are repurposing equipment like using 3D printers to print face masks for healthcare professionals working with COVID-19 patients. We are seeing this in how people are coming together to seek donations for others who are unable to work in their local neighborhoods and communities. We are seeing this in how people are volunteering to buy groceries for their more vulnerable community members. And more.
As we move forward, it is important to remember that we are all in this together. Look around you. As you will see across social media and the news, everyone is experiencing this abnormal situation that is impacting us all. You are not alone.
In the book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit argues that people often use crises as an opportunity to reimagine their own societies. Crises possess disruptive power where old structures and norms are toppled, thus allowing opportunity for new possibilities. While crises, such as COVID-19, do not choose to impact certain populations on various characteristics of people’s identities, such as race, profession, and socioeconomic status, the institutions and other systems that are in place often do.
For example, we will continue to find that this crisis will highlight breakdowns in our infrastructure and other systems, such as healthcare, which have differential impact on different populations that can serve to create new kinds of marginalization, and further marginalize populations that have historically been pushed to the boundaries of society.
However, across my studies I have found that affected populations often come together to build new systems to resolve these issues, and thus reimagine society so that it is more inclusive. The question is: how do we learn from these breakdowns to build a better world in the future?
We acknowledge that experiences with COVID-19 can be causing a lot of stress and anxiety in people’s lives. Should you feel the need for confidential support, please contact your local crisis center. Suggested numbers for confidential support are:
by Bryan Semaan