by Caterina Pietrobon
The Covid-19 lockdown has all the makings of a major stressful life event: it happened suddenly giving us insufficient time to prepare both practically, mentally and emotionally.
Eighteen weeks after the first outbreak was reported in Wuhan, there are still so many unknowns. Doctors are not sure why some people are symptomless, why others have moderate symptoms and others develop full blown symptoms and die. Most of us dread reading the new cases and death statistics, that are released every night and haunt us before bedtime.
What has caused uncertainty, anxiety and fear?
There is no effective treatment, our conventional ICU practices are not working for all patients and globally, our health systems are under pressure. Although the virus genome was sequenced early on and multiple laboratories are working on vaccines at an unprecedented pace, we still do not know the true nature of the Covid-19 virus.
How has social media impacted our mental health?
Individuals have been bombarded by prolific media images and reports on every aspect of the pandemic: the origins of the virus, conflicts with the WHO, trialed treatments, health system overload, conspiracy theories, criticism of how different government have handled the outbreaks and vivid images of people in personal protective clothing that reminds us of sci- fi movies. The lack of clarity and transparency in abundant fake and sensational news has further muddied the picture and contributed to confusion, helplessness and anxiety in the general population.
It is true that we have faced similar natural phenomena in the past: from tsunamis to earthquakes and hurricanes. Some countries experienced SARS and MERS outbreaks and learnt some useful coping strategies at the time. However, most of us witnessed these disasters from the safety of our sofas or behind our smart phones and newspapers. Covid-19 has hit home in a very personalized and individual way and not one of us has escaped its impact.
What is different about the Covid-19 pandemic?
It’s not a single event that has a finite end in sight but rather an ongoing stressor with an unclear trajectory that has affected every layer of society. This has given many people overwhelming fatigue stemming from feeling out of control.
The virus has not respected geographic, political or age boundaries. However, an individual’s experience of the pandemic is ultimately dictated by their socioeconomic status and reality. For some, Covid -19 has resulted in the need to address basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy: the loss of paid work resulting in no money to buy food or basic hygiene products. As someone succinctly put: we are all in the same storm, but we are battling it in different boats.
Which psychological needs have been challenged by Covid-19?
The lockdown has removed many freedoms that we previously took for granted including working, exercising, touching, socializing and travelling. This has toppled our sense of normality. These losses are akin to grieving for the death of a loved one, with the accompanying cascade of feelings of disbelief, anger, denial, sadness, bargaining and ambivalence.
Our sense of safety and security has been eroded: at times our feelings have been like a rollercoaster with accompanying overactivity or episodes of lethargy and aimlessness. All these are a normal response to adjusting to a new reality. Some of us may have experienced symptoms of stress including headaches, insomnia, sleep disturbances, mood instability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating or feeling overwhelmed and directionless.
At an existential level, it has forced us to face up to our fragility and invincibility in the face of death. Our daily rituals and routines have collapsed in space and time and we have had to restructure our occupations, hobbies, routines in very different and innovative ways just to meet basic needs.
What is the hidden loss that we have downplayed?
The loss that few have acknowledged is the assault on our sensory systems caused by isolation and social distancing. As an occupational therapist trained in sensory integration, I am acutely aware of the utmost importance of the role of touch in calming our nervous system. Our skin is the greatest sense organ and the first sense to develop in the womb. It helps us regulate our emotions: we think of how a hug can change how a child perceives a painful event, how a gentle touch for an elderly person can bring them back to the here and now, how touch is used to help a spouse feel connected and needed.
The physical isolation brought by lockdown has deprived us of our most basic human sense: it has brought a corresponding overload to our visual and auditory senses via constant streaming of media about the Covid- 19 virus. In some people, this may have triggered past unresolved traumas, heightened fear reactions, encouraged negative thinking patterns and increased addictive behaviors. It may have triggered a focus on the past and mourning how good it was then rather than focusing on coping with the present moment.
Are there any positive effects of the Pandemic?
Here is the interesting part: after the initial shock and adjustment to the pandemic, many people have started to identify positive effects including renewing their focus on relationships, spending more quality time with children/ spouses, addressing unfinished home projects, decluttering, focusing on diet, mental wellbeing and reflecting about how they worked and lived in the past.
Some have started to become mindful of their blessings and have gained renewed gratitude for what they have in life. It has also made us reconsider the difference between needs and wants. At the macro level, many countries report that pollution levels are down, wild animals are re-appearing in city parks and Nature is flourishing in our seas and lakes.
What has helped us cope with the pandemic?
At the start of the pandemic, physical distancing and isolation were rigorously enforced. Ironically, social connection has been the biggest need created by this pandemic so the meme should have read: physically isolate but connect socially.
The practical behaviors that have helped people cope vary according to the individual, but most people agree about the following:
sticking to some type of schedule, having rituals, engaging in non- media activities like gardening, cleaning, reading a novel or practicing a hobby to help facilitate some sense of normality.
Practices like home exercise, journaling, meditating, studying online or learning a new skill have been shown to be helpful in giving meaning to lockdown time. But as with all pandemics there are those that cope and those that struggle. Domestic violence is at an all-time high worldwide during the lockdown and it reminds us in a very poignant way that relationships and connection are the core issue that we need to nourish and address in our work as mental health workers, parents, educators and responsible citizens.
Stay safe and Stay Positive.