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The COVID-19 outbreak has brought upon humanity an unprecedented and challenging situation. The pandemic has made this a shared experience that we all are undergoing in the isolation of our homes. Some of us may have people we care about around us, and then there are many who are completely on their own. While isolation is a deeply painful experience to go through, it is also a subconscious response to an imminent danger or threat. In its most severe form, social isolation has also been used as a harsher mode of punishment in prison settings, which speaks volumes about its negative psychological impact.
Can isolation during this lockdown pose a threat to our mental health?
It is inevitable that a prolonged period of social isolation will become increasingly difficult to deal with as we rely on each other to survive and thrive. Under the threat of mortal danger, our capacity to depend on others becomes seriously compromised. Deep-seated fantasies of persecution and danger begin to bubble up creating mistrust and cynicism in us towards other people. When these feelings are unchecked, they can take over and create mayhem, damaging the social fabric of our existence. Due to the undefined nature of COVID, our fears may become heightened even more, and since making our internal reality bigger and scarier.
What can be the impacts of Social Isolation on Mental Health
Trapped in these feelings, social isolation can end up becoming a breeding ground for a host of emotional difficulties and psychological disorders. So even though we may remain protected from the physical dangers of Covid-19, we would continue to struggle with the emotional ramifications caused by it.
Our response under such a looming threat could either be an acceptance of reality or a denial of it. It can be seen in the different ways in which people are responding to it. While some have found a way to deal with it by not actively thinking about it and engaging themselves in hobbies and other activities, there are many others whose social and economic realities offer them no respite and they continue to be directly and continuously impacted by it. While some people have become extra cautious with their hygiene, there are others who flout all regulations and continue to expose themselves and others. This denial is an example of a maladaptive defense mechanism that ends up exposing ourselves to threats and not really protecting us from them.
Another defense mechanism that we end up relying on is projection. It is when we ascribe blame or threat to someone in the external world when we are not able to deal with the anxiety internally. Some of the hostility towards doctors who are trying to help the suffering patients is an example of such a projection. These maladaptive defenses are a result of this anxiety that is festering within us during these difficult times.
Many of us who are not able to externalize this anxiety also may end up experiencing these attacks internally in the form of depression.
The loss of control and this curtailment of basic freedom is what characterizes social isolation in its worst form.
What complicates matters further are not just fear for oneself but a constant sense of dread about losing those you love and care about. Protecting oneself becomes all the more difficult when you perceive danger to your loved ones as well.
Can our brain use isolation to protect itself from pain?
Out of the many defense mechanisms that our mind employs in dealing with threats to our emotional health, isolation is one of the common ones identified in the psychoanalytic theory by Sigmund Freud. Isolation as a defense mechanism creates a gap between threatening and non-threatening thoughts and feelings. By breaking off associations with unpleasant thoughts and feelings, the mind tries to reduce the impact of the negativity that can endanger our sense of self. While some defense mechanisms may take on more maladaptive forms later on in our lives by restricting us, some of them can be transformed into healthy coping mechanisms as well. We are currently facing a deadly threat and to deal with the effects of this threat, we need to rely on our mind’s capacity to use isolation as a means of coping with reality.
How to deal with the emotional impact of Social Isolation?
As we remain in the grip of this bewildering situation, it is difficult to say what is the right way to cope because everyone is trying their best to deal with it in their own capacities. However, it is helpful if each person determines for themselves the pace with which they want to access information and regulate their contact with other people.
It may be helpful to have social interactions but they can also become overwhelming sometimes and hence one has to continuously negotiate these distances. We need to allow ourselves to get in touch with our shifting feelings and those of others and try to meet each other’s needs.
Some people may find it very rewarding to engage in productive activities, while others may feel oppressed by it. Again, finding your own pace, which is determined by everyone’s unique living conditions, becomes essential
While we adapt to this new situation and develop new habits, we need to be mindful of how we are impacted by the interruption of the way we have lived a life before. It might make us uncertain about the future and impact how we are approaching our work, our relationships, and other aspects of our lives. This uncertainty needs to be acknowledged and worked through.
It is possible to lose a sense of time during isolation. It becomes difficult to create or sustain routines as our contact with the outside world shrinks. It may be helpful to find some way to structure the day and create some rhythm that can be followed.
For most people, the collapse of the distance between their work life and personal life has become emotionally exhausting. Time and space are essential ways to structure our existence. Perhaps making simple changes like assigning a workstation to yourself in one nook of your home, may help in organizing mentally these different spaces.
Being mindful of any changes in your day-to-day functioning is essential in taking care of your mental health. If you notice any significant changes like loss of motivation, disrupted eating and sleeping patterns, lack of pleasure in the things you previously enjoyed, etc. then it may be helpful to take professional help in assessing what may be going on internally.
It is also helpful to create circles of care for yourself and those around you, which can consist of people who make you feel safe and make the isolation feel bearable.
How has forced isolation due to illnesses in the past created wonders?
1. 1665 – Plague: Cambridge university shuts down.
This was the period when Sir Isaac Newton poured himself into developing new theories around physics such as calculus and optics. The most important of them regarding the moon orbiting the Earth was incepted during this time.
2. 1562-1563 – Bubonic Plague/Black death
William Shakespeare was forced into social isolation as theatres were ordered shut due to the life-threatening illness. However, it was during this time that Shakespeare wrote some of his most famous and brilliant works – “Macbeth”, King Lear” and “Antony and Cleopatra”
3. Edvard Munch – the Norwegian artist.
Munch is renowned all over the world due to his brilliant painting – “the Scream”. It is well known that he spent most of his life in isolation. There were many reasons for it – the demise of his mother due to tuberculosis when he was five years old, losing his sister soon after and his father suffering from psychotic depression. Besides this, he himself suffered from frail health which forced him to miss school and spend all his winter indoors, alone in isolation. There are many analysts who believe that this expressionist artist’s creative pieces were extraordinary as he chose to express his pain and turmoil due to isolation through art.
So, amongst the many challenges, the current pandemic is posing for all of us, one of the longer-lasting ones is social isolation. Even as the world gradually opens up, a sense of mistrust and fear from our social surroundings will take a long time to fade away. This shall force most of us to live in social isolation making it our new normal. A better understanding of its impact on our mental health shall equip us to take better care of ourselves
The world is under the siege of a deadly virus and all humankind is struggling to stay safe. This is not the first time though, we have had the Spanish flu, the measles, smallpox in the past: but this is different! Never before has the world been so permeable, never before have the borders and boundaries been so transparent, and never before has the world been so intricately interconnected.
As the lockdown period extends and as we all hope for a period of normalcy, all that we are currently doing is to tide over the crisis by taking each day as it comes. We are trying to safeguard our children by keeping them indoors, keeping them engaged, and mostly avoiding talking to them about the graver issues related to the pandemic.
However, we are also completely ignoring the fact that our children are going to grow older one day, taking care of their own families, and that we might not be there to cocoon them at that time. Hence it is our duty as adults to share with them the experiences and learnings from the current crisis to help them evolve into adults who are resilient, responsible, and hopeful. Bob Keeshan said, “Parents are the ultimate role models for children. Every word, movement, and action has an effect. No other person or outside force has a greater influence on a child than a parent”
So what is it we need to write for them? Or what is it that we talk to them about?
1. Let’s talk to the children about Unity – explaining to the kids the concept of ” vasudhaiva kutumbkam” – the whole world is one!
This pandemic has brought the entire mankind together beyond caste, creed, race, nationality. And that is what our kids can reveal and find strength in. Share with them the pictures from Italy, Spain, China, Germany as to how everyone is not just fighting the illness in a similar manner as us but how also other people from another end of the world are sharing their experiences to help other world citizens prepare better and stay safe.
This means that all the world citizens are our family and we should feel for them as such. Compassion, empathy, and a sense of oneness is what is implied by “vasudhaiva kutumbkam”
Let us teach them gratitude and humbleness for what we are blessed with- the roof over our heads, the food on our plates, the good health we live with, the means to stay connected to our loved ones living far away, and all that which is beyond material things.
We don’t need to reach them all this but only asking them to pray each morning and thanking the almighty for all his kindness, blessings and bounty will make them more humble and caring. and don’t we know the big hearts our children have?
Gratitude for what one has inspires confidence in oneself and hope in children.
THE JOY OF SHARING
Let us talk to our children about how each individual is sharing what he or she can to help his brothers and sisters who are not as blessed as they are.
Be it food
Be it masks
Or in any other capacity
Also, maybe they could contribute some amount from their own pocket money to truly understand the spirit of sharing
Let us help our kids understand how despite all countries struggling with the pandemic are still trying to help each other in whatever way they can. The Indian government lifted a ban on an important medication needed t fight COVID 19 and exported it to 30 other countries in this time of crisis.
Let us discuss with our kids and help them understand the pain and grief of those away from their families, those who are sick, those who have limited or no access to food and shelter in this pandemic. Next time you see the hoards of migrant laborers on bus stands and railway stations in the news, try not to blame them for the spread of illness, try not to call them liabilities in front of your children. Rather talk to them about why we should feel sad about their plight, share with your children how the government, NGOs, and religious Organizations are serving the needy in this hour of need by different means.
Empathy is a key emotion that equips an individual with gratitude, self-awareness, and responsibility.
Remember, this pandemic may be fought with lockdowns, policies, international support but it will only be won with empathy, respect for all and kindness.
Impart in your children the skill of resilience by presenting yourself as an example to stay level-headed and calm. Try not to let your own anxieties and worries about work, finances, health, relatives’ well-being, children’s studies, daily chores, etc transmit onto your child. This may happen when you are irritable or seem quiet and withdrawn to your child. In these stressful times, it is important to consider your own well-being as well. Organize for some time alone. Build this into your collaborative timetable. It could be reading, pampering, or exercise. Looking after your well-being is paramount.
SERVING AND HONOR
The most important thing that our children should learn from this pandemic is the courage and valor with which our frontline workers are serving the country.
The health care staff – doctors, nurses, ward boys are all serving relentlessly despite the risks involved to serve their fellow beings, to discharge their duties selflessly.
The sanitation workers who keep our surroundings clean, the police personnel who maintain law and order on the roads even when the whole country sits safely inside locked doors are all examples of real heroes who put society and their duty even before themselves or their lives or their families. Let our children learn the value of service and courage.
Compassion not just for fellow human beings but also for animals and birds. Share with your children the news articles and snaps of the NGOs and individuals ensuring that even the stray dogs, cows, and goats do not go hungry or thirsty in this period of lockdown. Help them keep a bowl of seeds and a pot of water for the birds or feed bread etc to the stray dogs in your colony or street.
We as humans evolved from a single-celled organism that lived in the sea. It was by a series of adaptations that man became such a complex and fine creature. So, in this manner, humans have been able to survive various calamities and stressful events. Hence, teaching our children that the current adaptations in our lifestyles – staying indoors, physical distancing, online studies are also going to be able to help us tide another crisis in our lives. Helping them understand that some of these changes might last longer than wanted and that resisting them might hamper our safety. This ability to adapt to different circumstances is a crucial life skill enabling survival and growth.
The skill to live in the moment. Thinking of what we are able to do each day- studying, reading storybooks, playing games, etc. Teaching kids to be mindful of themselves imparts calmness, allays anxiety, and fosters self-confidence. Yes, we are missing being in the mall, in the park, school, etc, but at the current moment I have my parents who are spending time with me, making lovely food, and above all caring for me. Learn to live in the moment and let the focus be on now!
INCULCATING HOPE AND COURAGE
Share with your children the previous epidemics of the Spanish flu, the bubonic plague, measles, tuberculosis, and other illnesses which at that time had seemed invincible but over time mankind not just came out of the throes of those illnesses but also developed vaccines to completely eradicate some of them like polio, smallpox, and measles.
Talk to them how even today, many scientists, virologists, doctors, and research organizations are racing against time to find medications that work against this novel coronavirus and are diligently working on developing a vaccine to prevent this infection entirely.
Knowing about the past successes and also about current developments will instill hope and courage.
As the human population grows and so does human encroachment into wildlife areas like forests etc, the pandemics become more frequent as seen in this century – Ebola, Nipah, SARS, MERS, and now COVID.
Let us talk to our children about respecting nature and taking pleasure in nourishing it.
Share with your kids the pictures of the Himalayas being seen from Jalandhar or the sparkling waters of Yamuna and Ganga within days of withholding human interference during the lockdown.
Let their childhood relish nature’s bounty. This will motivate our next generation to take care of the planet and nature for their glorious future and not repeat the same mistakes as ours.
And that is why we need to help them see that silver lining in this dark grey cloud.
And if they sometimes still feel sad or lose hope, tell them –
The current scenario is indeed an unprecedented time for all of us. As all of us struggle with our own worries and anxieties, we forget that our children are really facing an enormous disruption to their lives too. Some of us might believe that with the schools being closed, no studies and the whole day to play – what more could the kids ask for?
But really, it’s not so. Read below to find out more:
Impact of COVID-19 crisis on children’s mental health-
Children are susceptible to confusion and fear and this can include the types of fears that are very similar to those experienced by adults, such as a fear of falling sick or dying, or a fear of losing their loved ones out of sickness or death due to this mysterious illness.
Besides major fears like this, even minor disruptions in their lives cause a great deal of stress and anxiety in children. Schools have closed as a part of necessary measures, therefore children no longer have that sense of structure and stimulation that is provided by that environment, and now they have less opportunity to be with their friends and get that social support that is essential for good mental well-being.
Young children need constant stimulation to maintain their energy levels and attention spans. Smaller houses also mean lesser space for outdoor play and other physical activities in the lockdown.
Elders trying to cope with their own anxieties during the lockdown may also communicate a sense of anxiety to the children.
Little children who are now unable to enjoy simple activities like going to their favorite restaurant or foregoing an ice cream may also lead to sadness besides being worried about the larger issues that the elders talk about amongst themselves.
Constant reprimands for proper handwashing, maintaining hygiene may lead to irritability in children.
The kids finding their parents at home throughout the day just like on a holiday or vacation might make them hope for more & most parents who are working from home might not be able to fit into their children’s expectations of spending a great amount of time with them. Children may find that they want to be closer to their parents, make more demands on them, and, in turn, some parents or caregivers may be under undue pressure themselves.
Young children may find the changes that have taken place difficult to understand and both young and older children may express irritability and anger.
What are the Signs of Psychological distress in children ?
Not all children respond to stress in the same way. Some common changes to watch for include:
Excessive crying or irritation in younger children.
Reduced attention span
Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (for example, thumb sucking or bedwetting.
Excessive worry or sadness
Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
Withdrawn behaviors like keeping quiet or keeping to themselves unlike previously.
Aggressive behavior manifests in the use of abusive language/throwing-breaking household items.
Excessive demands and temper tantrums.
Somatic complaints such as unexplained headaches or body pain.
How can you as parents help your children cope with the psychological challenges/effects of COVID-19:
Take time to talk with your child about the COVID-19 outbreak
Most children will have heard about COVID-19, seen something on TV, or heard friends or teachers talk about the illness. Others may have overheard you talking about it. There is a lot of misinformation out there, so don’t assume that they know specifics about the situation or that the information they have is correct.
Answer questions and share facts about COVID-19 in a way that your child can understand. Explain that the germs causing COVID-19 are like ones that cause a cold. Remind them that these illnesses can spread easily, but that they can also be prevented, which is why we need to wash our hands, use tissues, and use sanitizers.
Kids thrive on routine:
Try to keep to daily schedules as typical as always, even if you are quarantined at home. If schools are closed, create a schedule for learning activities and relaxing or fun activities. Structure a day for your child that replicates a school day. Set them a timetable with start and end times, with breaks in between. Map out the learning they will be doing.
Get the creativity flowing:
Give your kids art supplies such as crayons, colored pencils, markers, or paints to create showpieces for your home. Put the artwork on your fridge or hang them around your house and host your very own art show. By involving your kids in art and craft, you’ll not only be helping them pass the time easily but you’ll also be giving wings to their creativity.
Have an amazing time exploring the world of books:.
Choose any book of interest. Read aloud or listen to an audiobook. Discuss what has been read. Ask your child which character he liked, what was his/her favorite part of the book. This would help in developing the critical thinking skills of the child.
Engage children in fun activities:
like finding differences in the two images, jigsaw puzzles, or letter cancellations which would require children and parents to cross out specific letters in the newspaper in a given time span. Such activities would help in developing the attention skills of the child and at the same time act as a family-bonding exercise.
Use media for social connection:
Social distancing can be isolating. If kids are missing their school friends or other families, try video chats or social media to stay in touch.
Try a new no flame cooking recipe:
make dinner as a family; find recipes and tips for cooking with children safely.
Engage in offline fun activities:
engage in activities that help the family relax and communicate such as playing board games or uno/ludo?snakes and ladders or making your own board game.
We all know that children ask a lot of questions and as parents one can easily zone out ignoring the constant nagging sounds of “Mummy, mummy, muuummmmy!…look what I can…” (Daddies get it too), However, it is always important, but more so now during these time of uncertainty that our children feel heard, so practice active listening skills “Yes son/daughter, that’s great, I need to think about this, I’ll answer you when I’ve found out the answer”.
Lastly, let them know that they are ” Our Earth’s Superheroes ” as they follow the lockdown and help mankind defeat the enemy – coronavirus from within their homes!