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Photo: iStock

How a pandemic affects mental health

Research shows long periods of isolation can lead to trauma, anger, exhaustion, lack of motivation, drug abuse

Coronavirus has plunged the world into chaos and induced an all-pervasive sense of panic. While working from home, we find ourselves glued to our mobiles, internalizing the barrage of bad news inflicted upon us. Panic scrolling makes matters worse and takes a heavy toll on our mental health. This prolonged isolation has been particularly severe for the economically and socially marginalized and those with pre-existing conditions like anxiety and OCD.

Samantha Brooks, a research scientist at King’s College, analysed the psychological impact of the coronavirus-induced quarantine by drawing upon similar studies done after other pandemics like SARS, H1N1 and Ebola.

Turns out that long periods of isolation can lead to trauma, anger, exhaustion, lack of motivation, drug abuse and even domestic violence. In Paris, domestic violence increased by 36% a week after the lockdown was enforced in view of covid-19.

There are several stressors that make quarantines challenging for our mental health, especially duration, lack of reliable information, fear of infection, frustration, boredom and chronic anxiety about running out of supplies.

In fact, even after the end of the quarantine period, financial and emotional instability can impact our mental health. We assume that once the curfew is lifted, life will be back to normal but that is often not the case.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari explains that temporary measures put in place during lockdowns and quarantines have a nasty habit of becoming permanent. Even when the coronavirus cases are reduced to zero, governments might mandate stricter surveillance. This will have obvious repercussions on our mental health, and we might find ourselves unprepared to deal with the new normal.

In order to mitigate the negative consequences of the lockdown, we must act now.

First, limit news consumption and be wary of misinformation. Brooks’ research suggests that more information does not mean reliable information. Social media forwards, quack cures and unverified statistics serve no purpose beyond democratizing fear.

Second, connect with friends both old and new. While the number of Skype, Teams and Zoom calls have gone up exponentially, we should keep in mind that more calls do not automatically mean better conversations. Like panic scrolling and panic working, people are also panic calling. To be able to meaningful and fun conversations, we need to nudge ourselves to talk beyond the havoc caused by the virus.

Third, preempt burnout. As boundaries between work and leisure blur, we get used to being in a prolonged state of exhaustion. Our concentration suffers, creativity falls and output becomes erratic. Burnout isn’t just about the number of hours we work. It is about losing control over what we work on, when we work and what our work leads to, our overall impact.

Being burnt out will make matters worse for us and our organizations. Taking time out for self-care and digital detox will help us brave this crisis.

Fourth and most important, cultivate what Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist from Vienna, calls “tragic optimism". Tragic optimism is an acquired skill to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss and suffering. He says that we all have the capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.

During times of crises, we need something to look up to and something to look forward to. Frankl kept looking forward to reuniting with his lover. That hope kept him alive and transformed his suffering to some extent.

Fifth, let’s stop trying to be happy all the time. Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. Meaning, on the other hand, can be created. There are four pillars of meaning: purpose, belonging, transcendence and storytelling (the story we tell ourselves). Crises like the one we find ourselves in is an opportunity to abandon our wanton search for happiness and relentlessly pursue meaning.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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