The word unprecedented is being bandied around a lot at the moment. I don’t think I’ve seen one news report or governmental press conference where someone doesn’t use it to describe the difficult, tragic and bizarre era we’re living through.
Most people with a mental illnesses or vulnerabilities will be struggling right now and even those with the most robust mental health will be finding it hard. Many of us are dealing with loneliness in the midst of enforced social distancing. We know that being isolated is as bad for the body as it is for the mind; Psychology Today says that ‘chronic loneliness is worse for our health than smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and loneliness has been linked to a weakened immune system, and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline, dementia, and a shorter life span.’
As animals, we are hard-wired for connection. Infants rely on touch and devotion from their parents to survive. Early humans lived in social groups as isolation resulted in certain death. When we feel that we are disconnected and uncared for by others, our brain releases the stress hormone cortisol, because the mind instinctively assumes that we will perish alone. Being a member of a mutually caring group is integral for emotional and physical wellbeing. Many people don’t necessarily belong to a traditional family unit, however they still find familial connection through their work or social circle, which has been taken away, albeit temporarily.
Couples also have it hard; the lockdown has forced a lot of people to move in together, which puts massive strain on relationships that aren’t yet ready to be co-habiting. It’s also tough on relationships that might not be on sturdy ground; the divorce rate in China has skyrocketed since the outbreak of Covid-19.
If you are finding it hard to cope, feeling lonely or trapped, know that you’re one of many. There are so many people in the same predicament. I’ve been volunteering to offer phone support and everyone I’ve spoken to has some version of the same thing. Being isolated from the outside world is unnatural; we aren’t designed to live like this. I think it’s important to acknowledge the severity of the situation and give yourself a break. If you’re not baking, writing a novel, learning a language or working on a six pack, don’t fret. You don’t have to win any prizes in lockdown, just surviving is enough. You will get through this, but it is more important than ever to reach out and ask for help. The support available will be less hands on than usual, but I’ve been finding video calls very comforting.
I’ve heard a few people say that they feel guilty for feeling low, given that they still have a roof over their heads, they aren’t the victim of domestic abuse, haven’t lost anyone to the virus and they have food on the table. I often go down this line of thinking when I’m feeling depressed, and it’s very destructive. I beat myself up for not feeling gratitude which invariably compounds my feeling of failure. Other people’s suffering does not add or detract from your own. You are entitled to your sadness and anxiety; there is no hierarchy of pain and compassion is not means tested. Of course it’s always useful to practice gratitude, but feeling that you should buck up your ideas because someone else is worse off will make you feel more depressed.
This will pass, we just need to sit tight and take it one day at a time. I’m looking forward to the day I can visit my mum with my son, meet a friend for coffee or just get on the tube and go wherever I want. Until then, just know that you are not alone and this difficult period is no reflection on your capacity to cope. Don’t dwell too much on how long this will last, all you need to do is get through today.