Lessons from a war zone: How to emotionally survive and flourish in the pandemic

When COVID-19 struck, Aisha Ahmad recognized very few people around her had lived through a large-scale disaster. Despite being a professor of political science, she found herself acting as an online counsellor, sharing wisdom she earned living in conflict around the world.

If we 'breathe into this new world,' we can find 'new ways to be happy,' says Aisha Ahmad

Dr. Aisha Ahmad is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, and the director of the Islam and Global Affairs Initiative at the Munk School. She’s also chair of the board of Women in International Security Canada. (Emily Agard)

This story was originally published on May 8, 2020.

Was this you? A mad scramble for toilet paper. A desperate, deep dive into banana bread recipes. Scrounging around for flour and that holy grail — baker's yeast.

Aisha Ahmad sees you, and she'd like to have a word.

Ahmad has lived and worked on conflict dynamics in Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Mali, Kenya and Somalia. It became clear to her fairly early in the COVID-19 pandemic that many of the people around her had no experience surviving the systems-wide failure brought on by catastrophe.

"Your soccer club is gone and your swimming pool and your favourite restaurant, all of those things that maybe you felt defined you have somehow been taken away and so it almost feels like an assault on the person yourself, on your own personal identity," said Ahmad. "But you have yet to breathe into this new world and create new parts of who you can be under these conditions, new ways to be happy."

Ahmad is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, specializing in international relations and international security. But in recent weeks, she has become a kind of counsellor, providing online guidance and moral support to readers around the world.

She says there are similarities between this pandemic and the conditions in war zones.

Ahmad talking to Syrian refugees in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, in 2017. (Submitted by Aisha Ahmad)

"A lot of people think war is just those explosive moments — the gunfire and the explosions — and that certainly is part of it. But there are also long periods of sustained confinement, being unable to see your loved ones, having to reimagine yourself,  having things that maybe defined you no longer be available," Ahmad explained. "And that doesn't mean that your life is over."

Take time to assess the situation

The initial feeling of shock and loss during a crisis can feel overwhelming, Ahmad said, and the frenzy of productivity we saw in the early days of the pandemic was likely a response to a feeling of loss. She said it is necessary to slow down and give yourself time to examine and accept your current reality.

"It is not normal to think that a pandemic is a sabbatical or writers retreat, or a great time to learn a language. Actually, a pandemic is a great time for you to make sure that you have an understanding of your food security, that you're in touch with your loved ones who are front-line workers, to ensure that your home space is safe. That's the correct reaction to a global crisis."

It is easy to focus on the limitations and deprivations of our current pandemic lives, what Ahmad referred to as 'walls.' But she said there is light between the walls and we can train ourselves to find it.

"Once a day, embracing the world as it is and asking it to show you something new that it can offer you, that can keep you healthy and well in this day," she advised. "That small technique, just asking every day — what can you do differently and how can you be different that might be enriching and satisfying — will keep you happy in a way that's more sustainable."

The need for green spaces 

When a systemic disaster like war or the COVID-19 pandemic occurs, people experience prolonged periods of confinement for their own safety.

During her time in conflict zones, Ahmad learned that one of the most therapeutic things she could do was go outdoors.

"In places where there has been gunfire outside my window, the ubiquitous threat of terrorism and kidnapping, even still, I needed to go walk in green space, because the internal distress of being confined — the green space was a magical remedy."

Ahmad and Dr. Deqo Mohamed buying sheets for hospital beds in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2013. (Submitted by Aisha Ahmad)

Many cities are struggling to reconcile these two essential needs — physical distancing and access to nature. Ahmad proposed that we need to reimagine the place of parks in our lives. Instead of being beautiful places where we can spend hours on end, she said we should regard them as healing places where we go for limited — and physically distant — visits.

Staying mentally healthy for the long haul

"Nobody posts the picture of themselves crying into a bag of Doritos," Ahmad said of social media posts. "Everyone's posting their banana breads and their Zoom yoga classes … And then you think you're the worst one and you're the only one who's not getting it when in reality, everyone's just taking a turn having their bad day."

Ahmad suggested that no day is ever a total writeoff. Even if it's 2 p.m. and you are still in your pyjamas.

She advised giving yourself a restart no matter what time of the day. Take a shower, make yourself something simple and healthy to eat, and then make a small effort on one item on your to-do list. 

It will not be your most productive day, and that's OK, she said. Doing a small task, like a load of laundry, can help shift your emotions that day into something a bit more positive.

And she cautioned not to get too ambitious once your day is back on track.

"If you started at three o'clock in the afternoon, many people think, 'Oh my God, now I have to work until midnight to catch up for the lost time.' If you do that, you're going to give yourself self-created jet lag, and you'll ruin your next day," Ahmad said. "So even if you feel like you're on a roll by sunset, turn it all off, put it away, tidy it up, and then set a modest to-do list for the next day."

Ahmad shared the song that's keeping a smile on her face through the pandemic. You can check it out at Tapestry's Soundtrack for the Soul.


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