As a species man is socially and naturally conditioned to form emotional bonds and attachments to survive.
This process is part of early conditioning that comes from the mother-child nurturance bond that ensures the infant’s safety and survival. As we grow, we thrive in situations where we have a continued sense of belonging, community and connection with each other. Bowlby the psychologist who authored the Attachment Theory (1958) and studied behaviour between infants and their mothers and care-givers defined attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.’
So, for a socially programmed human, what does social distance and isolation mean and what are its emotional and psychological ramifications?
If we look at social behaviour that is being played out on social media and combine it with experiential observations of how we are behaving and coping with the situation of a lock down of our normal world, our work spaces, our social interactions, we can see that there is a pattern and structure to human responses and coping mechanisms.
It is clear that no one will emerge from this extended period of social isolation unscathed by the emotional and psychological impact it will have or has had.
The fact that social isolation is not voluntary creates the first point of emotional conflict and stress. The human mind has to process the absence of freedom in making this choice vis a vis what the mind is conditioned to seek and demand as a way of being and living. The first response is to resist and question the logic and efficacy of this diktat. Will it really help to control the progression of the disease / threat, do we need such extreme measures? Can this be a success given the size of the nation, the size of the city, the community? What about essential services, healthcare, food supplies and support services? Can one live for a protracted period of time without them? Is hunkering down the only way to deal with this problem?
This is almost always followed by loud proclamations of doom and disaster pertaining to the economic and social fabric of the country, the dispossession of the poor from their means of livelihood and the fear that one will be rendered economically insecure and unproductive.
While these prostrations are not entirely untrue, they also reflect our inner turmoil; our fear of the uncertain and the liminal, our resistance to change and the fact that we derive comfort from the known and habitual way of being. Social isolation becomes a metaphor for a loss of meaning and being separated from a world that I know and feel secure within.
Like all anomic situations, the pattern of restoring “nomos” and order is to create a pattern of coping behaviours that help one transit through this situation with the least discomfort and loss of meaning.
The first coping mechanism is for the individual to face the self while creating a new paradigm of life as normal. Who am I and what am I are spiritual reflections that are bound to emerge as one is forced to spend more and more time with oneself? But often the focus on creating the new normal may bypass the spiritual inquiry and focus on re-creating a familiar universe within the home. The endeavour is to make the home now the hub for all that is familiar and comforting and yet preserving the integrity of activities and relationships that are important to the individual.
The space within the home is re-oriented making way for work and productivity that the individual considers critical to retain the sense of being productive and valuable. Time too is now forcibly restructured to include domestic work, a fitness routine, child, plants, and pet care, and working from home productivity.
Leisure and pleasure are also given a designated time and space to feel special. New virtual rituals are put into place to create bonding with friends and family. The use of video and voice-based apps like House Party, We-Chat, WhatsApp become facilitators for this networking and bonding.
While this re-structuring of space, time and effort helps the individual navigate what he or she considers an important routine, it also begins to subtly create emotional and psychological transformations.
– A sense of coming to oneself and enjoying the shift of attention from external pushes and pulls to being with oneself. Some find this return centering and spiritually uplifting. Others may find the burden of their own company onerous and depressing. But some form of self-reflection begins. – As the external supply chain becomes disrupted a back to basics mindset begins to creep in. Old routines, old ways of consuming and living begin to get evaluated and altered to fit the new reality of scarcity and non-availability. This does result in a realisation that one can manage with less.
Here again this can go two ways; a re-evaluation of our addiction to consumption and a desire to be more sustainable in the future or a resignation to this period of deprivation with the hope that one can go back to being the consumption junkie one always was when the isolation ends.
– Creating the new normal within the home forces one to re-organise time, space and effort to be in a new reality. Working from home and still being productive and connected via technology also results in a subtle shift in the way we think our work world should be constructed and navigated.
As a firm that works with consumer in-sighting and design strategy I have noted a number of subtle and obvious changes that have taken place in the way we work. For one, all travel and face to face interactions have come to an end given the forced social isolation. This has forced us as a team to raise some critical questions.
o Do we really need to be on the plane so often to be truly connected or productive? Are virtual meetings not as effective for decision making and problem solving? o Can we not stay in touch with our clients and work mates virtually and what is the quality and nature of these relationships? o Can we innovate new ways of working using virtual technology? Teams have ensured ways of being in touch with consumers, clients and the world out there.
It goes without saying that the challenges are way more complex for work forces that are involved in manufacturing, banking, blue-collar jobs, traders, delivery services, essential services, agricultural work, and providing civic amenities and civic governance etc.
The new hunkered down reality for a large section of our population means being without income, real jobs, and resources or being forced to continue working despite the threat, to ensure mere survival. The psychological and emotional impact of this isolation is an increase in uncertainty and a fear of being solvent in the future.
This will impact the way a large section of our society will consume, spend, and invest. The behaviour is likely to mimic war time conservation. Luxury and pleasure will be deferred for what is essential and linked to sheer survival – what is referred to as a ‘siege mentality’. Who gets what within the society may result in future tensions and fissures in the social fabric of the haves and the have nots?
In my view the strongest emotional impact will be felt in the sphere of relationships and bonding. Social distance means maintaining physical distance and there is some inherent loss of intimacy and contact built into this injunction. Virtual hugs, emoticons to express emotions cannot substitute the need for physical contact and the healing quality of love conveyed through physical touch.
Video based apps are being widely used by parents and grandparents separated from their families. While the voice and the face may convey the love and affection can it be a real substitute for a physical hug or physical play.
At the same time couples and families are being forced into close proximity within the homes and being asked to spend many hours together. This results in its own tensions and frustrations and these are exacerbated when physical space is an issue. A young friend counselled me to imagine that there was a fictional character present in our midst who we could blame when things were not being done as we wished them to be and when one wished to vent about a spouse or children. This was the invisible punching bag who could be derided for bad behaviour and negligence of duty.
The second stage of this forced isolation will be the build-up of anxiety about being in a liminal state:
– Concerns about an uncertain future – Concerns about one’s livelihood – Lack of control on external factors like the economic conditions, healthcare, supplies and lack of freedom to make critical choices – No certainty about when the pandemic will truly end and when we can be sure of protection and cure – A barrage of fearful information that stokes the fear of the unknown and the sense that one is not in control – Facing the notion of impending death of one’s loved ones and self – Being cooped up within the confines of one’s home without the freedom to roam free
Anger, frustration, and negative emotions are underscored by the physical isolation that now begins to erode one’s emotional wellbeing. One begins to seek a new set of beliefs and data that can comfort and reinforce a sense of security and return to normalcy.
Natural innovativeness also kicks in to find new ways of connecting, working, working out, relaxing, creating a new world within the isolation
While many of us would like to remain positive in the face of this situation the fear and the threat is real and will arouse deep psychological and emotional distress.
Luana Marques a Harvard psychologist and renowned practioner of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy suggests that the best way to emotionally cope with the anxiety response evoked by this threat is to:
– Embrace Discomfort: She argues that we are biologically wired to push away our emotions. Yet science teaches us that fighting our fear or anxiety actually makes things worse. Being in denial only represses the problem which will resurface to trouble us again and again. So, it is important to label our emotions and accept them. How am I feeling now? Anxious, scared, fearful, grateful? By labelling the emotions, we can calm the brain and ride the anxiety. – Face facts and plan: Avoid exposure to too much unreliable information. Select our sources carefully and use that information to plan our new normal. By planning we create certainty and control which helps the brain to predict better and stave off the anxiety. – Working out routines that help body, mind and spirit and are more holistic. – Anchor in the present moment: as anxiety leads us to escalate the situation and our thoughts are often in the future, catastrophising and assuming that the end is near or that death is inevitable. In the present moment we are able to slow down the brain and be more mindful. Sensing the sensations in the body as we undertake any activity is known to slow down the brain and reduce anxiety.
The third stage of the coping behaviour is to seek a higher meaning or purpose that will guide my behaviour in the days to come. For some it may remain a state of resignation and waiting it out. The stage can be one where some are depleted, pessimistic and emotionally fraught and resigned with one’s situation. The coping is to wait it out hoping to go back to what life used to be and where one can be what one always was.
But for others a desire for altruism and seeking the higher within me will guide the way they cope with the emotional angst they have begun to feel as a result of this threat and the forced isolation.
The other coping strategy is one where an emotional and spiritual transformation has occurred, and people are seeking a higher purpose and directing their emotional energy to reach out to help others so that they can handle this troubled time.
By helping others there is a re-establishment of “a sense of community” despite the social isolation. It also forces people to re- evaluate what they seek from their future. How they wish to live in the future. And, whether the new normal is perhaps a better way of being.
Whether they need to be more sustainable in the way they consume and live and whether their earlier life was “way too unconscious and habit driven rather than conscious and aware”.
The question will remain; is it life and business as usual once this threat is over? Or will my emotional and spiritual transformation during this crisis aid me to question who I am and what is my purpose in life and for this earth and the universe we share with other species.