This was an article written for Mumbai Mirror on April 20th 2020. The Link is here.
These are strange times. And we are coping, we are slowly getting accustomed lockdown brings; getting into the routine of balancing home chores with office responsibilities, keeping ourselves updated with the news and procuring our essential supplies while maintaining social distancing. However, a huge part of our lives is missing, all the things that gave us a sense of belonging be it weekend family gatherings, office meet-ups, working out at the gym, dinning out. It’s normal to feel emotionally disconnected from others at this time. Filmmaker Karan Johor, in a recent interview, summed it up: “What I miss are the hugs. When I meet people, the first thing I will do is hug them”.
The continued social isolation can have a lasting negative psychological impact on us, too – man is, after all, a social animal. A study in The Lancet titled “the Psychological impact of quarantine,” reviewed several studies after the SARS outbreak in 2003, and found that being quarantined could lead to symptoms of acute stress disorder. Similarly, America’s centres for disease control and prevention (CDC) warns that the following signs could indicate that you’re feeling emotionally distant:
- Feeling of numbness, disbelief anxiety or fear
- Changes in appetite, energy, and activity levels
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares and upsetting thoughts and/or images
- Physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems, and skin rashes
- Worsening of chronic health problems
- Anger of short-temper
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
The most important finding of The Lancet review study is that the psychological effect of quarantine can still be detected months or years later so, how well we manage to stay emotionally connected will determine how healthy we emerge from this crisis.
You’re not “quarantined”
Using the term “quarantine” to define any period of isolation can perpetuate a sense of helplessness and make on feel psychologically more distanced from others. Quarantine involves avoiding contact with others to see if a person has been exposed to the coronavirus. ‘Isolation’ involves separating an individual who has contracted covid-19 to prevent them from spreading it to others. However, what the larger population is following during this lockdown period is best defined as “social distancing”: restricting our contact with those outside our family units, keeping a safe distance (approximately six feet) from others when outside, as also avoiding gathering spaces such as schools, religious places, malls and public transportation.
Understanding these terms is important because their misuse can increase the inner feeling of emotional vulnerability during this period. Also, most of the adverse psychological effects we experience come from the restriction of liberties. So while social distancing is required by law, it’s good night now to focus on the freedoms you do enjoy – such as the ability to connect with friends and family with technology.
On one hand, we experience moments of national solidarity that brings us together such as the PM’s request to honour the medicos with claps. On the other, we continue to remain divided across the faultiness of communities and class. One lesson this pandemic seems to be driving home. Is that while we are socially distant, we are all connected emotionally by our collective vulnerability. The virus has in many ways, been an equalizer. This is a global experience that each of us, regardless of race, class, culture, age of gender, are facing together we can come out of this more resilient if we work together.
Use the internet
Dr. Bessel van der kolk, the world’s leading expert in traumas therapy writes in this book the body keeps the score, “when something distressing happens, we automatically signal others to come to our assistance. However if no one responds to our call for help, the threat increases, and our primitive brain jumps into “fight or flight” mode. And if there is still no help, we disengage, collapse, and freeze. Now imagine, during this time of complete isolation, how big a mental health crisis we might have faced had we not had access to social media, online meetings or WhatsApp chats, Dr Kolk, speaking to the New York Times said “the internet is a huge variable in this pandemic, we have a profound new way to comfort one another.” Remember, an inability to engage with people could cause not just anxiety, but also long-term distress,
If you live alone
Our minds are attuned to visual contact and to physical proximity mirror neurons help us reflect nonverbal cues and establish social connection so, when the only option is to connect virtually, the engagement needs to be more intimate, rather than superficial.
The next time you visit a store for purchases; don’t avoid eye contact with others. Even while we are all wearing masks, eye contact can be used to convey solidarity during moments of despair. Pets can be a huge source of connection, too. You can also take a mindfulness class online or broadcast your talents to the community. We are used to hugging, shaking hands, back-slapping and high-fives, but we can bond even though we are physically distant. All it takes is some effort.