With many countries beginning to lift restrictions, Psychotherapist BEN PORTER reflects on what feelings we might encounter moving forward. 

Unlocked door

The effects of isolation have been studied with groups of submarine crews, astronauts and other professions or missions where living in confinement for extended periods of time is a requirement.  Research shows an emotional low point at half-way to two-thirds through the mission, characterised by feelings of lethargy and fatigue (see our blog on fatigue here) as well as loneliness, interpersonal conflict and resentment. This is referred to as the “Third-quarter phenomenon”, and is followed by what Dr Norris (a psychology of confinement expert) calls the “Reunion Phase” defined by a rollercoaster of emotions at the anticipation and taste of our ‘new normal’. This anticipation often evokes split reactions in that it makes us face our vulnerability in continued uncertainty, while also inspiring hope and joy.

Return to a new normal will be a new kind of reverse culture shock. Having spent at least two months in lockdown, most of us will have built new habits and adapted to life in lockdown. 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, in order 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 more compassion that we as individuals and employers can show others as we emerge from lockdown, the more we can lay a good foundation for togetherness and meaningful productivity. In starting to do this, here are some different challenges I’m hearing from client organisations and individuals:

●  Coming to terms with how the lockdown suits personal preferences and resisting a return to ‘normal’.

●  Frustration or conflict over another person’s perspective on distancing as governments lift restrictions and put decisions into our hands. This can be within a family, friendship group or workplace. It may be a decision to cancel a trip, or a boss’ decision to return to the office before you’re ready.

●  Ongoing anxiety stemming from uncertainty and a potential second wave. Feeling anxious has become a learned and normalised behaviour and this will effect individuals in a variety of ways. There is also a significant amount of worries about job security and upcoming structural changes.

●  Anger at the inequalities that have been reinforced.

We also know from survey data that psychosocial distress has increased sharply under lockdown. 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.

The phrase ‘tragic optimism’ was coined by famous psychologist Victor Frankl and refers to the possibility of personal choice and meaning that is birthed from adverse or tragic experiences. Similarly, Tedeschi and Kalhoun observe the phenomenon of 'post-traumatic growth' - the now well-recognised phenomenon that, after a deep seated crisis, many people experience psychological growth as 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 Coronavirus has caused to 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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