Over the past few weeks people around the world have gradually been asked, and then forced to put a halt to their daily routines as what was considered to be ‘just a flu’, also known as coronavirus (COVID-19), has turned into a global crisis, a pandemic.
The weeks and months that have passed as well as the weeks and months we are about to experience will undoubtedly be some of the most challenging times we will experience in our lifetime. Suddenly, the individualistic society most of the Western culture has been used to live in, is urged and forced to stop – people are encouraged to avoid public spaces, they are working from home and homeschooling their children.
At the same time, healthcare professionals, scientists, supermarket and pharmacy staff, lorry drivers, and all other employees and professionals who have for so long been underpaid and overlooked are being forced to work under unprecedented conditions, and to carry out heroic work to now, save our lives.
But, what is actually happening? How can we cope and adjust during this time, from the mental health perspective? What are the effects of this forced, physical ‘social’ distancing on our well-being – avoiding social encounters without emotionally and socially distancing ourselves from our loved ones?
Becoming a collectivist society
We have started going grocery shopping for our sick and vulnerable neighbours; while artists, fitness gurus, and influencers post free content on their social media accounts to entertain everyone staying at home (such as painting, dance classes, workouts, etc.). Also, retired NHS staff are signing-up to join the front line and thousands of final year medicine students graduated earlier to help the overwhelmed healthcare system.
Simultaneously, delivery services, supermarket staff, and bin men, among others are selflessly working to ensure we can all have the essentials at home. While, for most of us, our task is to restructure our routine and to adjust to staying and ‘functioning’ from home. We now realise that to survive this pandemic we need to practice resilience, and become a collectivist community – emphasise on the needs and goals of the group rather than our own.
The need to control in times of uncertainty
The lockdown measures have triggered an unparalleled sense of anxiety and stress. Suddenly we need to make decisions with uncertain outcomes. The decisions – both the social and the economic – we make on a daily basis are highly influenced by our emotions. Despite our efforts to take control over our emotions, what happens when we are overtaken by the unknown, and by fear?
With a deadly virus roaming around, a virus that knows no borders, social class, and background, we feel powerless, and overwhelmed. Now, uncertainty is a major factor of our decision-making; We dream of and plan for the future, without actually knowing when the lockdown will end, or when the vaccine will be found, how many people will be infected and how many will die.
Studies have shown that unless we engage in cognitive reappraisal, risk aversion increases and is more likely to increase alongside anxiety. We also waver between the ‘exploration and exploitation’, the kind of ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ mentality. When making a decision we need to weigh the benefits of exploring a potentially more profitable option, or exploiting a pre-existing, but usually more sub-optimal one.
The decision is ultimately affected by different components such as how familiar we are with the environment, and the value we expect from the known source we can exploit against the cost of becoming vulnerable and risking a costly exploration.
The behavioural and brain sciences are yet to uncover the exact mechanisms of either option, but we know that during this extraordinary time most of us will experience some anxiety partly caused by the uncertainty either decision is accompanied by. And we feel an unequivocal need to ‘control’, to ‘manage’ all these feelings and emotions which have penetrated our bodies and minds during this time of global chaos.
How should one cope with this? Over the past few weeks, numerous articles on how to cope with anxiety and uncertainty have been published and shared. And the biggest ‘take home message’? – try to maintain a routine and keep busy.
By keeping a relatively ‘normal’ routine we allow our brains to feel they’re taking control, we let our bodies adjust to the temporary, yet taxing and challenging normality.
‘I miss hugs and hanging out with my people’
As humans, we are surrounded by social interactions, physical or virtual. We use different means for different sorts of interactions, but touch has undeniably been the most frequently used and most reliable non-verbal mean of communication. Different fields of psychology have explained the importance of touch – skin-on-skin contact has tremendous developmental benefits. Touch is also present in our social interactions, as it has been found to be the preferred channel for expression of emotions, including social support. And, while we have learned to resort to hugs to soothe one another, to show our presence when a loved one is in physical and/or emotional pain, we are now urged to minimise, or actually completely avoid such interactions to prevent transmission of the virus. How is one taught to cope then?
People that previously felt lonely and isolated are now aching even more. People used to retreating to their social circle to share their worries are now at home. Even when at home, we try and avoid interactions with those in the same household. But is this social, or physical distancing? How has this term affected our perspective during this isolation period?
While physically distancing – for an unknown amount of time – can be temporarily tackled by staying in touch emotionally and socially (over the phone, etc.) those already in isolation and lonely, suffer a little more. Being alone in daily life for a prolonged period of time contributes to the development of depressive traits. Long-term social withdrawal and increased loneliness leads to increased negative affect.
While this forced stay-at-home measure is necessary to defeat this contagious virus, we could practise self-care and monitor our well-being. Adopting a healthier lifestyle, such as healthy diet, normal sleep hours, physical exercise, reduced screen time, is of paramount importance in order to control the effects of this abruptly-altered daily life and information bombardment.
This is a difficult time, and the way each one of us copes is different. Let’s take this time as an opportunity to rebuild our habits, to invest in our relationships and consider the benefits of moving towards a more compassionate, considerate, and sustainable community.
Alkistis Saramandi is doing an MSc in Clinical Neuropsychiatry at King’s College London.
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