WHERE’S your corona comfort zone? As we ease our way out of lockdown and take our first tentative steps towards resuming normality, it’s a question being pondered around the world — and the likelihood is that your comfort zone is not the same as your loved ones or work colleagues (check out the baffling American face mask rage videos on social media if you’d like proof).
Not only do we all have differing personal levels of risk — pre-existing conditions, for example, or age, weight and ethnicity — but also different tolerances of risk too. For some, going back to the pub or eating at a restaurant is a welcome change and a necessary process if the country is to get back on its feet, return to work and boost its economy. Meanwhile, others find the idea horrifying and are still sanitising supermarket shopping and only seeing friends outdoors where strict social distancing is possible.
Unsurprisingly, these different attitudes are a minefield… and for anyone living with housemates, it’s even more complex.
‘When the Black Lives Matter protests were going on we had to have a house meeting about attending,’ says Carly Morris, 32, who lives in London. ‘Half of the house wanted to go but the others — one of whom has asthma — did not feel comfortable. In the end, no one went but it was fractious. Some people in the house are having partners or friends indoors now, which others are not happy about, or they’re going out to bars or not wearing masks when they go to a supermarket while others do. It’s difficult.’
As someone with lupus (an auto-immune disease for which she has to take immune-suppressing steroids), Julia Hill, 41, from Brighton is at high risk of complications from Covid-19. She’s been shielding with her partner but has had a hard time convincing her family of the need to do so now ‘things are going back to normal’.
‘That’s what my sister and brother say,’ she says. ‘They claim I am “overly anxious, it’s just a flu” and that I need to “get back to real life”. I spoke to my GP friend about whether I should do that as of August 1, as per the government recommendations, and he said absolutely not and to basically carry on with what I’m doing.
‘The rules may change but the virus and its potential consequences for me do not and I don’t want to get caught up in any second wave. My family seem offended that I won’t go for dinner with them but they are all seeing lots of people and going to the pub and to barbecues with friends, plus they don’t believe in wearing masks. They both have teenage kids who are out meeting friends as well “because you can’t keep them in all summer”. That’s their choice but I don’t feel it is safe for me. When they say I am neurotic and overly reactive, I feel as if they’re gaslighting me.’
It’s something I too have experienced. As someone with a heart condition living in one of the worst affected areas of the UK for Covid-19, I am erring on the side of caution when it comes to socialising and mixing with people. It’s understandable to many yet I still find I am sometimes met with incredulity when I say I don’t want to give someone without a mask a lift in my car, to have a socially active family member over to stay for the weekend or that I don’t feel comfortable going to an (outdoor) group exercise class yet.
Audrey Stephenson is a psychotherapist and coach who explains the situation thus: ‘The way that other people are is what they experience as “normal”,’ she says. ‘And everyone has their own normal.’
Stephenson says it’s not that one party is ‘right’ and one is not.
Differences in feelings on the matter quite often come down to the fact one party hasn’t been impacted by the virus in a visceral way. ‘However, in order to “cross the bridge” in either way, each person has to embrace the other person’s reality,’ she says.
‘If you’re visiting family with a different lifestyle, that may mean you need to prepare them and yourself for the differences between what is now “normal” to each of you and the fact you will have to say no to certain things or be outside of things. That may be initially uncomfortable. So set out very clearly what you need to enable you to relax. If the other people can’t provide that, then the really painful thing is that they can’t “cross the bridge” and hang out with you.’
Of course, it works both ways. Katy Rees, 36, from Birmingham, says she has felt ‘judged by others’ for going out for dinner and to bars again.
‘Both my husband and I have had confirmed Covid-19 in March and have fortunately fully recovered,’ she says. ‘Now restrictions are lifted, we want to go out for dinner and to the pub, we’ve booked to go to Spain, yet we’ve had sarcastic comments from friends and colleagues or people telling us we are irresponsible for doing so. There’s this moral superiority going on.’
‘Not everyone will understand how you live your life and that is painful,’ says Stephenson. ‘It doesn’t mean they don’t care. They can’t deal with the reality of the situation. The whole “I feel uncomfortable, you change” is very common in many different types of relationships but underneath it is simply fear and discomfort.’
Stephenson says the pandemic is also forcing us to realise that while we may believe we are all completely independent, the truth is we are completely interdependent.
‘This means our behaviour impacts others,’ she says. ‘It is a fallacy that we get to do what we want, when we want, without any consequences to other people. Adjusting to that can be hard for some people, but now more than ever it is key.’
Bridge the coronavirus gap
■ If friends and family are struggling with how cautious you’re being, Audrey Stephenson suggests reminding them that ‘you do not walk around in fear every day but you do live with different circumstances’.
■ Ask for what you need and for honesty about the reality of other people’s lifestyles so you can make an informed decision about whether to mix.
■ Follow hygiene and social distancing guidelines and wear a mask to reduce your chance of catching coronavirus.
■ Asking someone to wear a mask or to respect social distancing if you’re sharing a space with them isn’t awkward, it’s common sense.
■ Need to coax yourself out of your comfort zone? ‘Bubbling’ with a group of people who share your individual level of concern — whether they’re cautious or more open to going out — removes the stress of meeting up with people.