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Self-isolation and mental health

Scott and Dan
RGU lecturers in mental health, Scott Macpherson and Dan Warrender, look at techniques and tools for dealing with anxiety and challenges during this crisis and why the behaviours of ourselves and others may not be the same as normal.

The world as we know it has changed, at least for the time being.  All too often disasters and crises are viewed on the news from the comfort o.f our homes, affecting others and to our limited concern.  This time the crisis is global and the situation unique in that people all over the world share anxiety regarding the impact of coronavirus on ourselves, our loved ones and our communities.  People have said that we are in this together… well, almost

Whilst we all share some threat and anxiety regarding coronavirus, we are all different people with different circumstances and different ways of looking at the world.  Understanding this is important, as whilst we share a common threat we do not share a common experience.  For some, self-isolation and social distancing means being truly alone; while for others it means being with family or friends.  Some will feel blessed at being surrounded by the ones they love; while others will feel trapped with difficult and potentially abusive relationships.  It may mean working from home, if you have the luxury to do so, or having a devastating impact on income and livelihood if not.  It may mean remaining at home, assuming that you had a home to begin with.

Understanding ourselves and others can be incredibly difficult during this time, and we would all benefit from mentalizing.  Mentalizing refers to understanding behaviour as based on mental states, inferring why people do what they do, based on what they may be thinking or feeling.  This concept is in-between empathy and mindfulness, as we need to be able to mentalize others, and ourselves.  We need to pause and imagine what is happening in the hearts and minds of others in order that we understand their behaviour.  However, we can at times also be passengers of our own experiences and would benefit from taking time to know our own mind, asking; what am I thinking, what am I feeling, and where is that coming from?  Behaviour is always supported by reason, and is full of meaning. 

Coronavirus has been described as bringing out the best and worst in people.  For some their empathy has increased and extended to others.  For others, however, empathy has stopped at their own front doors.  Mentalizing this, we can understand that people are scared for themselves and their families.  Twenty four-hour news affords us no escape from thinking about the virus.  Footage of panic buying has the consequence of encouraging more panic buying, and we can appreciate the uncertainty that leads people to prepare for the worst.  Preparation in the UK seems to have focused mainly on the purchase of pasta and toilet roll (an underwhelming apocalypse for zombie movie enthusiasts).

Mentalizing others may allow us to maintain relationships, and manage our frustration and anger, as we infer the things that may be driving others.  However, mentalizing ourselves is not a given and requires commitment.  During self-isolation we may find ourselves “stuck”… stuck with our kids, our partners, stuck on our own, stuck indoors, stuck for something to do… but it can be useful to understand that “stuck” is just a perspective and, while changing the situation may be very difficult, we all have the opportunity and ability to change our perspective.  Rene Adler, the father of contemporary psychology who died in Aberdeen 83 years ago, asserted that it’s not situations themselves that make us feel the way we do, rather it is the meanings that we give to those situations that influence our emotions.  So, the way we look at things (or the cognitive frame) is of great importance.  We are absolutely free to frame being at home with our kids, our partners or ourselves as being “stuck”, however we are equally free to frame this situation differently… perhaps as an opportunity… an opportunity to have more fun, play more games, read the book you haven’t got round to or do the practical things you’ve been meaning to do around the house or garden, to watch that film or bake that cake. 

It’s not always easy, of course, to take such a different perspective.  Particularly when we’re anxious about health, finances and the like.  Re-framing what we’re doing in terms of the things that matter to us can be a useful way of enabling us to take a different perspective.  For instance, if kindness is something that you value, you can choose to re-frame self-isolation as an act of kindness as it reduces the risk of spreading the infection to others.  If respect and consideration are things you value, you can leave that last packet of pasta or toilet rolls on the shelf for someone who might really need it.

It’s true that negative thoughts breed negative feelings but advising people to think positively is patronising and unhelpful in a climate of such uncertainty.  Positive thinking may be unachievable but it is possible to reflect on what we’re thinking and how we’re behaving, and to consider whether this may be linked to how we’re feeling.  Cursing the “idiots” who bought all the tinned tomatoes or shouting at our kids who are getting in the way is unlikely to leave us feeling joyous and calm… if we can re-frame some of our thinking and adjust our behaviour a little this will pay dividends for our emotions.

Throughout human history, adaption and evolution have been required to overcome the various obstacles that have beset our kind.  The current situation is no different.  It is important to remember that each of us is experiencing this differently, interpreting what this means for us through our own frames of reference and adapting at different paces and in different ways.  It is understanding and empathy that will get us through this.  The anxiety that many of us are feeling is fully understandable.  We should all do our best to remember each other, and not lose ourselves.

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