The pandemic is causing increased stress in some households. Anxiety about the health risks of the virus is likely to be compounded by issues such as financial difficulties, heightened relationship problems, loneliness from social isolation and other concerns
Psychologists and other behavioural scientists have for years been studying the mental health and performance of isolated, confined groups such as Antarctic explorers, commercial fishermen and even astronauts sequestered on a simulated flight to Mars. Such studies suggest that certain coping strategies may be helpful in our current times.
Allow yourself and others personal space
Many people in isolated and confined environments have spoken about the importance of having personal space. If you live in a household with others, consider explaining your need for quiet time alone at least occasionally so that you can read, listen to music or otherwise recuperate on your own.
However, consider that creating personal space is as much about psychological as physical separation. Researchers Jennifer Pickett and Joeri Hofmans observed that commercial fishermen typically lived for many weeks at a time on ships in tiny crew quarters in which the bunks were so narrow and close that sleeping crew often kicked each other in the head accidentally during the night. Even though physical separation was not possible, fishermen interviewed by Pickett and Hofmans still spoke of the need to have time in which they did not talk to anyone else. As one crew member put it: ‘Silence is as good as another room.’
So, respect that either you or any people you live with may sometimes benefit from periods of psychological separation – even if physical separation is impossible. Just because you live together does not mean that you must converse together all of the time and share every activity.
Stay mainly focused on the present
The Danish military has a special unit called the Sirius Patrol, in which two-man teams patrol the uninhabited national park of Greenland. They carry their tent, food and fuel on dog-pulled sledges for many months at a time in temperatures of between –3 Celsius to –46 Celsius. The two-man teams are always made up of one less experienced and one more experienced patrol member.
Researchers led by Anders Kjærgaard of Aalborg University found that a major difference between the less versus more experienced patrol members was the extent to which they focused on current concerns. The more experienced patrol members were substantially more likely to tell themselves repeatedly to: ‘Take it one day at a time.’ The veteran patrol members were better at focusing on tasks that needed doing on any given day rather than thinking about the many difficult weeks and months that lay ahead of them.
This finding mirrors other research showing that people who allow their thoughts to wander to possible future problems tend to experience worse mental health. It can be easy to allow our minds to speculate about possible scenarios – unemployment, illness, the death of loved ones. But a healthier attitude is to focus on what we can do in the present.
Try to focus on what you can do today. If you can take action to improve a situation, then do so; if you cannot take action, stay busy by finding another activity to do instead.
Reminisce occasionally about past, positive moments
Between 2007 and 2011, an experiment called the Mars-500 mission was conducted in which six would-be astronauts were confined on a simulated mission to Mars for 520 days – nearly 18 months. The scientists in charge of the mission created a computer programme called the Book of Life, in which crew members were asked regularly to reminisce about past, positive moments from their lives.
The researchers at the European Space Agency along with their Russian and Chinese counterparts created the Book of Life programme to help the crew with their mental health. A sizeable body of research has shown that recalling past, positive moments is a reliable method for boosting positive mood.
This can be done in one of two ways. You can simply reflect and try to summon up the details of occasions that were positive and meaningful to you. Alternatively, you can engage in something called ecphory, which involves using cues such as keepsakes and mementoes to trigger positive memories. For example, you might have kept a shell from a beach holiday or the tickets to a concert. Looking at physical photographs or images on a screen can also be effective for cueing positive memories.
Critics might dismiss the mere reminiscence of cherished moments as a flimsy exercise. However, the science says otherwise. Rutgers University researchers Megan Speer and Mauricio Delgado have found that simply spending a few minutes reflecting back to past, positive moments actually reduced levels of cortisol – a hormone associated with stress – in experimental participants. In other words, thinking back to fond moments does not merely improve psychological wellbeing – it also has benefits on the body that can be measured physiologically.
Ponder alternative perspectives
A research paper on the psychology of Covid-19 was published recently in April 2020 by a team of over 40 social scientists led by Jay Van Bavel in the Department of Psychology & Neural Science at New York University. The researchers noted that: 'Twenty years of research on coping and stress suggest it’s not the type or amount of stress that determines its impact. Rather, mind-sets and situation appraisals about stress can alter its impact.'
In other words, two individuals can face the same economic and physical challenges. However, one of the pair could be much less affected by their problems by using certain mental tactics.
One much-researched tactic is called reappraisal, which involves consciously looking for more positive interpretations of stressful situations and events. For example, psychologists have observed that some people are not debilitated by stress but actually experience a phenomenon called post-stress growth. Stress can help people to reprioritise what is important to them, leading to more fulfilling personal relationships and greater satisfaction with life. Uncertain, stressful environments have also been shown to enhance certain aspects of mental functioning including a skill called shifting – an ability to switch flexibly between different tasks or strategies.
To reappraise whatever you are going through and help yourself to feel more in control, remind yourself regularly that stress is not always harmful. Remember the research showing that people can grow as a result of challenges and difficulties. In the long run, it could toughen you up and benefit you.
Indeed, Van Bavel and his research collaborators observed that inducing adaptive mind-sets about stress could 'increase positive emotion, reduce health symptoms and boost physiological functioning under acute stress'.
Putting it another way, changing how we view stress may not only help us to feel better psychologically – it may even help our bodies to become healthier and more able to fight off infection too.
"Stress can help people to reprioritise what is important to them, leading to more fulfilling personal relationships and greater satisfaction with life."