A psychological perspective on the impact of social distancing and the ways to cope with it

This article is being written to address the current situation across the globe regarding social distancing due to the ‘Coronavirus Pandemic’. It has almost been a month since the time it’s in the news and various measures have been taken by WHO (World Health Organization) and respective countries’ governments to ensure that awareness is spread regarding various precautions, to prevent the situation from getting aggravated. As a part of this effort, practicing isolation has been suggested as one of the best measures to deal with the current situation. Social distancing can be explained as minimizing physical contact between individuals to prevent the outspread of a disease. This new practice has its own pros and cons. In this article, we will thoroughly examine the psychological impact of social distancing on people and some of the effective ways to cope with the situation.

There is a plethora of mixed emotions and experiences one is put to in this period of isolation. The fundamental reason for experiencing several positive and negative emotional states is due to the fact that this is a novel, uncertain and complicated situation. The whole world is trying to uncover the mysterious state and is progressing day by day with nominal advancement. The current situation combined with the new information with each passing day is creating feelings of confusion, stress, sadness, anxiety, fear, pessimism, helplessness, disappointment, anger, joy, surprise, peace, positivity, optimistic, etc among people, consuming them with uncertainty to deal with the issue.

To get deeper into what exactly is happening with ourselves in order to do something about it, we need to step up and practice one of the most widely used mindfulness technique – STOP:

  • Stop whatever you are doing
  • Take a breath to bring back your attention to your body and in the present
  • Observe what is happening within (thoughts and feelings) and outside of you
  • Proceed with what you want to do after being mindful.

Let me clarify this with an example,

Situation:- I am watching the news on the TV and I suddenly experience a sense of discomfort, now I choose to use the STOP technique.

S- I get to my room and try to drive my attention to my breath, focus on grasping the physiological sensations (trembling, sweating, palpitations) I am experiencing.

T- My thoughts about the news (why is this happening? Why are these people this way?).

O- Demystify the emotion I am experiencing, (sadness that the cases have been increasing at an alarming rate or anger at the people who aren’t following social distancing)

P- I step back and question myself about what ‘I’ can do in this particular situation? (Create awareness about the importance of social distancing or maybe do my bit of prayer) whatever I think I can do to deal with the situation proactively.

There are certain unhelpful emotions which I would like to throw some light on to delve deeper into the subject.

Some may experience boredom (behaviorally experiencing restlessness) and loneliness which could be a result of disconnect with themselves and the people around. This could be attributed to the modern urban busy lifestyle each one of us is exposed to, by not permitting us to get in touch with ourselves at a deeper level unless practiced consciously. Some people have really lost the knack of building meaningful relationships due to the lack of time and effort. It is not uncommon that several quarrels take place with the loved ones with a vacuum of comfort and cohesiveness.

Some may experience an existential crisis which makes them ponder over the perils happening in the world, the future and destiny of mankind, feeling lost and the quality of life, etc. These questions are but normal in such a crisis situation, however, it is very important how long is one dwelling on them. These thoughts could be helpful if one channelizes them into actions to tackle the problems, however, seldom does this happen.

There are others who enjoy their lethargy and get stuck with inactivity so much that it pulls them so low, engulfs them in negativity, drives them to question their self-worth and gets them to reject anything that happens positively in the situation.

Some express hostility and anger towards the situation without realizing what is triggering inside of them to experience these emotions, I am not saying that the situation is right, but there has to be a reason within, for the constant anger and hostility that one is experiencing.

Lack of personal control leads to experiencing uncertainty and fear amongst people. Due to the heavy influx of information from diverse media channels, people are being victimized to inauthentic, exaggerated and incorrect information which is making them vulnerable.

Stress is a consequence of anxiety and helplessness arising out of the situation. When people can’t comprehend and perceive the loss that is imminent and that which is impending, they start worrying about it, which leads to stress. One may experience headaches, fatigue, pains, and other physiological sensations as a result of stress. Experiences during social distancing could be a combination of these negative emotions or may arise independently at different points.

The most fundamental question which needs to be addressed is to discern the ways to cope with these negative emotions to surpass this stage successfully without suppressing or bottling them up. To begin this process, one needs to make a conscious choice to spend time with oneself and to practice the STOP technique. Once the process of self-reflection is initiated, one needs to fathom that this situation (social distancing) is transitory, gain the acceptance of what one is experiencing without any judgment, believe that they are not alone and the whole world is confronting this issue unitedly. Setting goals for each day can help us to be more productive and focused, taking away the possibility of boredom and inactivity.

Let us closely examine some of the ways to tackle this issue physically (behaviourally), mentally and emotionally.

  • Practice prescribed safe behaviors
  • Scheduling the day in the morning
  • Any form of physical activity(exercise) to boost our mood and immune system
  • Cleaning the premises (not only makes the space hygienic but also clears the mind)
  • Breathing exercises to become mindful
  • Prayer & Meditation to reset the mind and to aspire for something greater
  • Enhancing mental faculties ( reading books, solving puzzles, playing cognitive games, online courses, learn a language)
  • Expressive arts (writing, painting, music, dance, poetry, cooking, craft, etc) to connect with oneself and connect with others by sharing
  • Body-care (manicure, pedicure, facial, scrubbing)
  • Seek psychological counseling online for the issues you have suppressed in your past, only if you feel ready to deal with them
  • Family & pet interaction with a slow-down approach (avoiding impulsive talk and taking time to empathize)
  • Social Reconnecting (catching up with friends and relatives)
  • Help to the society (explore ways to reach out to people in need, donate, spread awareness)
  • Breaking the monotony & practicing spontaneity (doing something for no reason, just for fun/ pleasure, eg. star gazing, filling out online quizzes)
  • Planning for the future and accomplishing the tasks that are possible (any tasks to be completed in future)
  • Taking time out ( not doing anything but savoring silence- me time)

The above mentioned are some of the many ways in which one can take care of one’s mental health during this crisis period. There is no one best way that can be elucidated, every person is unique and one needs to introspect and unravel what works best for oneself. Some of the positive emotions one can maintain/develop in such a period would be to experience the joy and gratitude for the situation one is in. Staying focused and doing what one can do to help the situation consciously. Practicing positivity amidst the chaos is truly an art that could be flourished with time, meanwhile exercising acceptance without judgment can be the best. Inculcating hope and faith are of paramount importance to battle the situation and taking courage by reminiscing the victorious times the world has risen over the most dangerous crisis situations, can stand support to face the current situation.

About the Author

Counselling Psychologist.

Hi folks... This is Harshitha Krishnaveti, Counselling psychologist, Doctoral student,  Certified Career Analyst, Gold Medalist in Msc Psychol

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