The pandemic has disrupted our lives in unimaginable ways. More than 10% of Americans are unemployed and many others are extremely over-employed, acting as home-based teachers, employees, bosses, and babysitters. While some of our routines remain the same – there are dishes to do, dogs to walk, and emails to answer – far more of our daily activities have drastically changed or become unworkable. These lifestyle disruptions and our uncertainty about the future have likely contributed to rising levels of anxiety and depression. The pandemic exacerbates these mental health issues because many pre-pandemic coping practices, which were often social in nature, are now impossible.
There is a word for when things go haywire and we begin to feel alone and anxious and no longer know what to expect from our world. Sociologist, Émile Durkheim, calls this disappearance of normal life in times of social turmoil ‘anomie‘.
Our society has gone into a state of anomie. The practices that held us together before the pandemic – family gatherings, social outings, shopping, dining, going to school or work – have all become risky or near impossible. This lack of routine and loss of connection creates anomie, a state of normlessness, a condition in which members of society become uncertain about established ways of thinking and being.
Routines and social gatherings give people a sense of collective confidence about what to expect next. Without them, it’s no wonder everyday tasks might feel unimportant. Why do laundry or call a friend to make plans if you may not be able to leave the house for another six months? These feelings of purposelessness and isolation seem overwhelming, but luckily, we do have ways to reclaim our sense of connection and personal significance even in the midst of a pandemic.
To combat anomie, we must adapt creatively to our pandemic and post-pandemic condition by inventing new routines, finding ways to reconnect, and reinforcing our values.
Create consistency with routines
Establishing routines that make sense for you and your family during this time creates stability and helps counter feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. Even implementing a few daily or weekly rituals can help. This can be as simple as going to bed and waking up at a similar time every day or taking a daily morning walk. Creating schedules for children or pets can be especially motivating. A special movie night or a regular morning dog park playdate can make a surprising amount of difference in establishing a sense of normality in this stressful time.
Reconnect with your community
Social distancing prevents the spread of COVID-19, but it also leads to feelings of isolation, especially for people living alone. Fortunately, we have more ways than ever – in the age of video conferencing, social media, and digital correspondence – to connect with others while remaining physically distant. As psychologist John Grohol points out, during this chaotic time, it is important that we practise physical distancing but absolutely vital that we seek social connectedness. To prevent anomie from leading us deeper into a place of psychic isolation, we must make a concerted effort to connect with each other. Whether through safely distanced outdoor activities, digital get-togethers, or even good old fashioned letter writing, we must strengthen our social bonds because they create the stability we so desperately need to weather this pandemic together.
Re-evaluate and reinforce your values
Unprecedented times force us to question deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the world in which we live. Periods of anomie expose the disconnect between our ideals and reality. While I believe this questioning can be productive for social progress, as the protests against racial injustice have shown, feelings of social isolation, resentment, and hopelessness can, and have, led to increasing social polarisation.
In the face of pandemic disruption, we have a choice. We can cling to our values, even if they no longer truly serve us or the people we love, or we can reevaluate and choose to reinforce the ones that still ring true. Reinforcing our values can look like many things, practising kindness by donating time or resources to a nonprofit or assuming social responsibility by finding ways to help communities hardest hit by the pandemic. Reminding ourselves that we still have the power to help others strengthens our sense of connection and responsibility and helps give meaning to our daily lives.
The pandemic has brought about many necessary restrictions and distancing measures, but we are not as alone or powerless as we sometimes feel. We can combat the difficulties of distance, uncertainty, and disenchantment by creating rituals of stability, nourishing the relationships that bring us strength, and reaffirming our values through acts of goodwill. In the end, if we put in the effort, we might just come out of this stronger and more compassionate than before.
Katie Glanz, PhD is a writer, educator, and consultant.