Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Covid-19November 11, 2021

Instant forgiveness, or how to survive the anxiety of shopping again

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Retail stores are open again in Tāmaki Makaurau. Don’t fret if the thought of shopping makes you nervous, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell.

I once had to describe my road rage to my therapist. I thought it pertinent because irrational irritation has been a precursor to episodes of depression in the past.

People who don’t indicate are the cause. To type the things I have said while driving behind someone who hasn’t indicated would melt the face off every statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary within a 100km radius of your screen.

“Have you tried just forgiving them?” my therapist asked after listening to me explain why I wanted to punch a hole in my dashboard.

This sounded ridiculous to me at first. “Have you tried just forgiving them?” ricocheted around my head for days. Too simple, too nice, too messianic. Annoyingly, my therapist is often right, so I tried it one day. I literally blinked my eyes and willed myself to forgive the next dickhead who didn’t indicate. There was no instantaneous conversion but I did feel less like assaulting my car’s interior. I now do it all the time. Instant forgiveness, like instant noodles, does not deliver long lasting or soulful satisfaction and I will not be canonised anytime soon, but “Car Jesus” has become a useful cognitive reflex for me.

I thought about Car Jesus the other week when I felt irritation rising at our local vege shop after someone got too close to me. “Two metres please,” I thought. Irritated and distracted, I promptly crashed my trolley into a “Caution Wet Floor” sign. Someone from the shop raced out to prop it back up. To get out of the way, I knocked a pile of apples to the floor. Another person came over to pick them up. Though masked, none of us were two metres apart by this point. I imagined Dr Bloomfield explaining how the new Golden Delicious Beach Haven cluster got started.

This particular combination of uncertainty – about how to behave in a world where our usual cues and etiquette have been replaced by public health measures, doing something embarrassing, anxiety about catching a deadly virus and moral fear about causing illness amongst others – is about as bad as it gets for me in the anxious-brain stakes.

Thinking about how people might adapt to the extremely new rule book on how to behave in your own best interests and the interests of humankind, especially as retail opens up under level 3.2, makes me incredibly nervous. Not just for myself but for the holes it may tear in what already feels like the thinning cloth of social cohesion. The police have just announced a new unit to deal with abuse against retail staff. The other day, a man was beaten on the side of the road for reportedly cutting someone off on the North Western motorway. Even without the extreme ends of behaviour that might be incomprehensible to most of us, people in Auckland have been in lockdown for 12 weeks and it’s been a while since we’ve rubbed up against people in settings that we used to give little thought to.

People in masks wait in a supermarket queue
‘Build up your tolerance for being around other people and being out in the world again,’ advises clinical psychologist Kirsty Ross. (Photo: Getty Images)

Clinical psychologist Kirsty Ross says 12 weeks is absolutely long enough for previously familiar activities and experiences to start feeling unfamiliar, and for our brains to be operating from a constant, baseline level of stress.

“It’s very common in a crisis situation to have an acute stress response. The problem that we’ve got at the moment is that the crisis is ongoing, and it’s been ongoing for a long time,” she says. “When you’re in that prolonged stress, it becomes harder to keep a handle on where your thoughts take you.”

Overseas, worries about the threat of Covid, acquainting yourself with the unfamiliar “new normal”, and possible spikes in levels of anxiety as cities reopen have been termed “re-entry anxiety”. Unless you are exhibiting physical signs of anxiety, it might better be framed as an adjustment issue that most of us will face over the coming months.

As we approach Christmas with all its normal stress – and we layer over some supply chain issues, a global pandemic and the ethical and moral weight of our decisions and their impact on vulnerable communities – it’s hard not feel like there are wires waiting to be tripped as people try to adjust and re-enter spaces we haven’t been in for a while. I feel like I am constantly scanning for these trip wires at the moment, trying to stay two steps ahead, worried about saying or doing the wrong thing as I tentatively contemplate a silly little outing to buy some silly little Christmas decorations.

Ross describes this as being in a state of hyper-vigilance and says it’s completely natural for people to be feeling anxious at the moment.

“When we feel vulnerable and we want to protect ourselves, we monitor for, and notice, threats. It creates a level of physical hyper arousal. Your whole body is really in fight or flight mode. You have an adrenaline response and when you’ve got other everyday life stress on top of the constant stress you’ve been living in, it doesn’t take a lot to tip you into that hyper-arousal state.”

This is the state that worries me: already stressed and anxious people taking it out on each other or retail workers because stock has run out, a mask has slipped or someone doesn’t know what two metres is. I’m very aware other people might not have a weird Car Jesus reflex. I don’t even have it myself at the moment. The best I can muster is Ross Geller from Friends yelling “Pivot!” as I try to de-escalate situations in my head and not lose it over some shitty tinsel. “Pivot! Everyone is trying their best.” “Pivot! You don’t know what they’re going through.” “Pivot! You can always leave!” “Pivot! Humans are not the enemy, the virus is!”

Ross (Kirsty, not Geller) has better advice in case you don’t have Car Jesus or Ross from Friends lodged in your brain.

She recommends taking any move out into the world slowly.

“Even though it’s something you want to do, it can actually provoke a stress response because it’s something you haven’t done for a while and it will feel unfamiliar and foreign. Build up your tolerance for being around other people and being out in the world again. People throw themselves into something and go ‘Well, I used to be able to do this’, but it’s a bit like if you used to be a runner and you’ve had a year off and you try to run ten kilometres straight away.”

If you want or need to head out to shop, try small and local first rather than a big mall. Keep in mind that the usual “rest stops” at malls like food courts and Starbucks will be takeaway-only so there’s no real chance of sitting down for a breather. Ross also recommends not going at the busiest times and taking someone with you (ideally someone masked, vaccinated and from your bubble).

I explain “Pivot” to Ross (Kirsty, not Geller) to essentially determine if I am going mad, but she assures me that kind of check or reflex is probably quite handy. She suggests doing a quick body scan before you head into a retail environment – notice if your hands are clenched or if you’re already feeling on edge and if you are, maybe leave it for another day.

Finally, she advises trying to remember that you have choices in these situations. “You’ve got some choices about how you conduct yourself, and how you manage a situation. If you don’t feel comfortable, you can walk away.”

As we encounter retail staff again, it’s worth remembering that they can’t just walk away and don’t have the same choices a customer does. They’re going to need Car Jesus or their inner mental gymnast, Ross Geller, more than any of us. If you can’t summon instant noodle forgiveness, I recommend exercising your choice to leave. There isn’t a piece of shitty tinsel on the planet that’s worth not at least trying to be someone who contributes to mending our frayed cloth rather than poking yet another hole in it.

This is a situation where there is a clear power imbalance and you, the customer, hold more than the staff who are now being asked to police part of our Covid-19 response, as well as do their best to ensure you have a nicely coordinated Christmas colour scheme. There are absolutely going to be people who are not “trying their best” but most will be. Control what you can control and peace be with you.

Image: Tina Tiller

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