It’s been a year since Covid-19 turned our lives upside down and psychologist Dr Sarah Rasmi, founder of Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, has seen the impact at first hand. She tells The Livehealthy Podcast how human behaviour has changed and how the ongoing uncertainties are still making people fearful and exhausted.
What changes are you seeing now there’s a vaccine?
Vaccination represents a bit of hope, a bit of light at the end of the tunnel that we’ve all been waiting for with bated breath. It’s quite uplifting. What we’ve seen from some of the data coming out of Israel is that a pretty sizeable proportion of people who got the vaccine are testing positive for Covid-19, and this is attributed to the fact that once people get the first dose they feel more protected and they are being a bit more risky in their behaviour. The invincibility fallacy kicks in.
There’s this idea that nothing can hurt them now so there’s no need to wash their hands for 20 seconds, or wear a mask or wipe every bit of packaging. We need to be mindful so we don’t end up seeing a rise in numbers, which will make us feel a lot more helpless.
What are the struggles you’re seeing?
Mental health is going to be the biggest fall out from all this. People have had a really hard time for a really long time.
Even before Covid, the main concern people were presenting at our clinic and others were anxiety and relationship issues. Anxiety is still there but the nature of it has shifted – it’s now mainly to do with health.
We’re inundated with what symptoms to watch for and then there are new symptoms; there has been a lot of ambiguity. People are aware of every single change happening in their body.
Because this virus is transmitted very, very easily, we’ve gone from seeing people as someone to form a bond with to seeing them as invisible carriers. We’re looking at people with so much distrust and that is a major shift. Even going into an elevator fills us with worry and even panic to the point where we might ask someone not to get in with us and take the next elevator.
Once things began to open up, people were really worried about going out again. It was a case of ‘Please exit your secure cocoon and go out into the real world, where you’re surrounded by people who could potentially infect you.’
There’s lower tolerance due to fear, plus we just don’t have that much bandwidth. There is a return to some normality but people are exhausted.
We were told over and over to adopt healthy habits during lockdown. But what about people who already have many good habits and are still struggling? How do you help them cope?
There are two main ways: you can increase positive behaviours and try to rewire their way of thinking. I recommend working on behaviour because it’s easier and you see results faster.
It’s pretty basic stuff. I always recommend doing some form of cardiovascular exercise outdoors. It burns off the cortisol, the stress hormone, and you get to be out in nature. Even looking out of a window at nature reduces stress.
Everyone knows exercise is good but the issue is how to integrate it into lives that are already busy, when we’re all feeling tired and depleted. But you just have to start. You don’t have to go straight from watching Netflix for four hours every night to running a marathon. Just pick a day and say you’re going to do something for half an hour. You’re not developing a habit, you don’t have to be the best at it, you’re just going to try it and see how it feels before, during and after.
Put on your scientist’s hat. Collect the data and decide if this is something that serves you. You don’t have to commit to it, which makes it easier to take the first step, and because you don’t feel locked into it, you don’t have to follow through.
You also do couples counselling. How have couples fared during the pandemic?
I’ve seen two patterns. Some couples are closer than before because they’re spending more time together, they had good communication skills anyway and being at home in lockdown was an opportunity for them to reconnect and repair.
Then you have the opposite: lockdown provided a lot of opportunity for conflict. Being together all the time meant they had no breathing room so they felt anxious and angry.
For therapy to be effective, the couple has to be motivated, so the onus is on the couple to do the work. Growth is not linear. If you’ve had a tough week, that’s going to come out in the context of your relationship. If you’ve had a good week, that will probably also filter through.
Some of the discussion about Covid and vaccines is very polarizing. What’s a good way to cope with this rigidity?
You have to set boundaries, with yourself as well as with others. Covid is the topic of the hour, every hour, with every person we meet. People are fed up. But we don’t have to have those conversations with everyone.
I advise people not to check the news constantly but to save it for the morning, so that it’s less likely to interfere with sleep. If a friend can’t resist passing on the news via WhatsApp, say you prefer to find the information yourself because you’re feeling overwhelmed and it’s better for you to digest it when you’re feeling ready.
In conversations, agree to disagree. You’re not going to convince everyone about everything, but let’s be mutually respectful.
Are we pinning too much hope on the vaccine?
It’s difficult because it’s new and ambiguous but it has brought up a lot of anxiety in several domains. We are very lucky here in the UAE as we even have a choice of vaccines. It was rather lovely at first seeing all the scientists of the world rallying together to start bringing some closure to this chapter. There’s been a build-up, anticipation and now that the data is showing the vaccines are really effective and safe, that’s all really positive and promising.
What has been your best coping mechanism?
It’s 100 percent exercise. I’ve taken up outdoor desert cycling and I have been very deliberate about doing it to clear my mind and simply enjoy. I put in an audio book and away I go. Alone in the desert with a book – pure bliss.
Dr Sarah Rasmi is a guest on the Livehealthy podcast on February 24, 2021.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.