With many countries starting to lift restrictions, Psychotherapist BEN PORTER reflects on the feelings we may now encounter.

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For some people, this second lockdown has been characterised by a pattern of 'Learned Helplessness'. In other words, a sense of defeat due to a perceived lack of control and a feeling of hopelessness that positive change is possible.

The effects of isolation have been studied with submarine crews, astronauts and other people for whom living in confinement for extended periods is a requirement. Research shows an emotional low point at about two-thirds through the mission, characterised by feelings of lethargy and fatigue (see this blog on fatigue) as well as loneliness, interpersonal conflict and resentment. This is referred to as the 'Third-Quarter Phenomenon', and is followed by what Dr Harris (psychology of confinement expert) calls the 'Reunion Phase' which is defined by a rollercoaster of emotions at the anticipation and taste of our new normal.

This anticipation often evokes split reactions. It makes us face our vulnerability in continued uncertainty, whilst also inspiring hope and joy.

Return to a new normal will be a new kind of reverse culture shock. Having lived under restrictions for nearly a year, most of us have built new habits and adapted to life with restrictions. And because habits aren’t formed or broken overnight, there will inevitably be circumstances that make us feel uncomfortable as society emerges from lockdown. I liken it to a scuba diver that needs to make regular decompression stops when returning to the surface after a deep dive. Just as they need to readjust to the ambient pressure and reach equilibrium, so too we should acknowledge the environment we have been in, and take reflective stops to decompress.

The extent to which we as individuals and employers can allow for compassion within the wide range of responses as we emerge, is the extent to which we can lay a good foundation for togetherness and meaningful productivity. Here are some different responses I’m hearing:

  • Frustration over ‘having lost a year’ and not being able to accomplish certain personal or professional goals.
  • Ongoing anxiety stemming from uncertainty and return to work procedures. Feeling anxious has become a learned and normalised behaviour and this will effect individuals in a variety of ways.
  • Resisting a return to ‘normal’ as we come to terms with how the lockdown suits personal preferences.
  • Anger at the inequalities that have been reinforced, and anger over more trivial things due to an accumulative impact of stress and reduction in empathy.
  • Grief at having lost a loved one or colleague, which has the potential to be more complicated due to the abnormal circumstances of social distancing and restrictions.

We also know from survey data that psychosocial distress has increased sharply. While this is a normal response to an abnormal situation, a small part of the population will experience enduring or delayed mental ill health. During times of acute stress or trauma, our minds and bodies are geared up for survival with little need for emotional processing.

However, as the external crisis diminishes and a level of stability and safety returns, we become open to feeling the psychological impact of the crisis. Loss may begin to set in. A willingness to seek support when needed is an indicator of resilience. And seeking support sooner rather than later prevents the worsening of symptoms.

Tragic Optimism

The phrase 'Tragic Optimism' was coined by famous psychologist Victor Frankl. It refers to the possibility of personal choice and meaning that is birthed from adverse experiences. Similarly, Tedeschi and Kalhoun observe the phenomenon of 'Post-Traumatic Growth'. This is the now well-recognised phenomenon that, after a deep seated crisis, many people experience psychological growth. This can be a deeper connection to the world and others, a more relaxed and connected approach to time, and a greater sense of compassion.

I don’t want to negate the real pain and suffering that the Coronavirus has caused so many. Rather, it is the pain itself that provides an opportunity for growth. Today might not be the day that you mobilise your thoughts on how you have grown through this experience, but before the ‘new normal’ washes over you and your calendars return to the max, ask yourself how you have grown during this time, and what you feel is important to carry forward.

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