Covid has changed our lives. It has curtailed our freedoms, affected our relationships and forced us to re-evaluate our priorities. But despite the process being uncomfortable, frustrating and often quite unpleasant, what if some of this change has actually been good for us?

Dr Sarb Johal is a Wellington-based clinical psychologist who has been practicing for 30 years and working in the emergency management-psychology crossover field for more than 15. He was instrumental in helping the UK Government prepare for the H5N1 pandemic and worked through the H1N1 pandemic. Having lived predominantly in New Zealand since 2005, Sarb was also involved in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake response.

Back in March 2020, when New Zealand first experienced the full brunt of Covid lockdowns, Sarb knew that there were certain things that we were all going to need in order to cope.

“The concept of staying within your bubble hadn’t come out yet, but it was clear that people were going to be staying at home and that they would be disconnected from other people’s experiences,” Sarb says. “Finding ways to connect with others when we were going to be physically apart was really important.

Sarb INP
Clinical Psycologist Dr Sarb Johal. Photo by Nicola Edmonds

"Structure and empathy are the key things you need to survive in a crisis like we’ve been living through,” he explains. “You need both. But sometimes you need more structure and sometimes you need more empathy.” 

However, after an extended period of uncertainty and restriction, when we can’t do the things that we have always taken for granted, we begin to shift our focus onto the things that are most important to us. “Rather than focusing singularly on the stuff we do on an everyday basis without really giving it much thought, we start asking 'what do I actually want to do with my life and how I spend my time?'

“It’s been a mixed bag for a lot of people,” Sarb continues. “It may have been the realisation that they don’t spend any time with their kids, and now that they do it’s actually quite overwhelming. Maybe the balance has gone too far and they need to find somewhere in the middle. They don’t necessarily want to go back to how things were, but they certainly don’t want to be in lockdown 24/7 either. 

"We are all having to recalibrate," Sarb says. “For those people who can pay the bills and take care of life's basic necessities, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to ask, ‘how can I assert more agency and control in my life?’ They’ve had it all taken away, so when it starts coming back, how are they going to use it?

“There’s also a process of discovery that people are going through. It’s not just connecting with each other, but reconnecting with yourself and figuring out what’s really important to you.”

One of the other key things that Covid has forced us to come to terms with is accepting that things won’t always go as we’d planned or hoped.

“We all have these imagined futures for ourselves,” Sarb says. “We want to be travelling and doing all the things that we love, but at the same time we know everything is so precarious right now.

“One of the things I think we’re all continuing to learn is how to hold things lightly, not tightly. Accepting that there might be possibilities for things to happen, but we must also be prepared to let them go.

“The idea of reaching a ‘new normal’ encourages what’s called status quo bias,” he explains. “We all desperately want to go back to how things were, or at least find some sort of equilibrium so we can say ‘that’s it’ and draw a line under our experiences. But the biggest skill we can develop now is flexibility. Being able to change according to the situation we find ourselves in.

“People often have this false idea that resilience is about steeling yourself against an adverse situation and thinking ‘I just need to tough this out.’ But the problem with that model is it’s really brittle. If something gets through it can shatter your whole world view and it’s hard to pick up the pieces.

“If your resilience model is more give and take, then you can duck and weave around things that are thrown at you. Sure, sometimes you’ll still catch a glancing blow, but it won’t knock you over and you’ll be able to get back up again. Maybe things aren’t quite as good as they were before, but there are things you can take out of the situation because you’re playing the long game.” 

Lockdowns, travel restrictions and even working from home also mean that many of us have stepped back from the frenetic pace of modern life.

“Prior to Covid, we were living at breakneck speed, and growth was the only thing that mattered,” Sarb says. “We were living our lives on autopilot, being swept along with that tide. Covid has given us the opportunity to be much more intentional about how we live our lives and have more control over what we pay attention to. “Just like when we go through a health scare and we’re forced to look at what we put in our mouths, Covid has forced us to look at our diet of attention – what we put through our eyeballs and into our minds. Screen time has shot up. And that’s OK for a while, but is that really what you want to be doing for the long term? How do you vary your attentional diet? How are you spending that attention?”

So, as we continue to navigate these challenging and unprecedented times, the key questions we need to ask ourselves are: how do we, in the face of constant change, figure out how to stay afloat? How do we remain flexible? How do we figure out and prioritise what’s really important to us?

“People often say ‘I know my values,’” Sarb says. “But when you ask them how they try to demonstrate them each day, or what they try to teach their kids, it’s hard for them to articulate or put their finger on it. We don’t tend to actively assess our values, we ‘just know.’ But this is an opportunity to reassess. Is what you do in your life and what you value in your life matching up? If you can articulate your values better, you can choose how to live better.”

Dr Sarb Johal’s latest book Finding Calm (Penguin, RRP $35) is available now.

Reported by Jo Percival for our Autumn 2022 issue

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