Joyce Fegan: Is there a vaccine for despair?

The pandemic and the climate crisis might seem like two very different beasts, but they're not
Joyce Fegan: Is there a vaccine for despair?

David Attenborough has emphasised there is 'hope' for our planet even though it is in 'trouble'.

I don't know about you, but my emotional range currently vacillates between despair and despair. This despair comes categorically from the news, not just the Covid-19-related kind, throw American politics and the climate crisis into the mix, and then add in the seeming lack of progressive action to remedy any of it.

At the beginning of lockdown a whole half of a year ago, a friend sent a very useful infographic that her and her psychologist colleagues were sharing. It was called: "Who do I want to be during Covid-19?"

There were three zones within which you could fall. There was the dark blue "fear zone". Then there was the sky-blue "learning zone". And then finally, there was the light blue "growth zone".

I vowed to fall into the latter.

In the fear zone you would do things such as "complain frequently", "get mad easily", "grab food and toilet paper" that you didn't need, and spread your emotions of fear and anger as well as all messages you received. WhatsApp messages such as "my uncle-through-marriage's brother is an immunologist".

In the learning zone you would "evaluate information before spreading something false", give up things you couldn't control, identify your emotions and "recognise that we are all trying to do our best".

In the utopian one, the growth zone, you would live in the "present and focus on the future", make your talents available to those who need them, "look for a way to adapt to new changes", and ironically "keep a happy emotional state and spread hope".

While keeping a "happy emotional state" at all times might require litre-dosages of denial, spreading hope does sound like a noble endeavour. 'Sound like' being the key words there.

Last month science journalist Tara Haelle wrote a now-viral article entitled: 'Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted — It’s Why You Feel Awful'.

"Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters," writes Haelle, while referencing Ann Masten, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota.

To get through the short term, we tended to sourdough starters, enthusiastically took part in Zoom table quizzes, and baked banana bread.

But the short term has become the long term, and baking is no longer cutting the mustard.

We are more than six months in, and while the easing of restrictions gave us some respite in the summer months and September gave us some semblance of order and renewal, now with cases rising, we are desperately seeking solutions — solutions that are not within grasping reach just yet.

"Research on disaster and trauma focuses primarily on what’s helpful for people during the recovery period, but we’re not close to recovery yet. People can use their surge capacity for acute periods, but when dire circumstances drag on, Masten says, 'you have to adopt a different style of coping'," writes Haelle.

But the problem is: “How do you adjust to an ever-changing situation where the ‘new normal’ is indefinite uncertainty?”

Then, in the midst of all of this, there is other news to digest.

There is the news of wildfires exacerbated by record temperatures and an American President who strategically won't commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose in the November presidential election.

Not only are we in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, but we have a climate crisis world leaders seem unwilling to earnestly take on, and the leader of the free world threatening to usurp democracy. To say we are all out of "surge capacity" might be an understatement.

But despair, while we must allow ourselves to feel it, is not a long-term strategy we can afford to wallow in.

You''ll be glad to know that the subtitle to Haelle's "surge capacity" article is: "Here’s how to pull yourself out of despair and live your life".

Experts she spoke to emphasised the importance of accepting that life is hard right now, expecting less from yourself and nurturing important relationships. That's on a personal level, but what about on a political one?

On Thursday David Attenborough joined Instagram. By Thursday evening he was close on two million followers. His first video had amassed 5.4 million views in less than 12 hours. In it he said, "as we all know the world is in trouble". But the post also emphasised that there is "hope".

This month two new books hit the shelves. One is by Noam Chomsky, Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet. The book emphasises the crisis our planet faces but also says "there is a solution at hand".

The other book is by fellow American, Jane Fonda, also about the climate. This lifelong activist, in response to her own despair, wrote a book called, What Can I Do? The Truth About Climate and How to Fix It.

The pandemic and the climate crisis might seem like two very different beasts, but they're not. Every crisis is an opportunity and this is where we can transform our despair, by taking action. Once a vaccine has been found, and we are no longer in the state of a pandemic, we will move into recovery mode.

What kind of world should we rebuild? How can we make it more just, more sustainable? Ecological philosopher Joanna Macy describes what she calls “despair and empowerment work”. She asserts that we acknowledge the despair we feel, in order to unlock the creative solutions to overcome it.

While our surge capacity is depleted, and understandably so, let's accept that truth wholeheartedly, in order to move from despair to long-term action.

What minute action could you take, on a longterm basis, to feel more hopeful?

More in this section