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World News

Coronavirus: How would you describe your mental health?

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03-Apr-2020

Would you do us a favour? Would you be willing to describe how the coronavirus is affecting your mental health? Is the combination of isolation and existential stress making you feel more depressed and anxious?
 
Or is the family togetherness and the pause from normal life giving you a greater sense of belonging and equilibrium? How would you describe your psychological state? What are you doing to cope?
 
I ask for a couple of reasons. This is a moment that calls for deeper conversations and emotional accompaniment. We’re all going through something together. We’ll be more resilient if we can see others experiencing it in the same way. Also, it’s hard to get an accurate read on the people’s psychological state right now. On the one hand, this has become a wonderful moment of national solidarity.
 
Family reunion:
Millions are responding with acts of generosity, finding ways to bring food to elders, hosting virtual cocktail parties. People are checking in with each other. You hear of these 50-person family reunion Zoom calls. National identities are being remade in real time. What had once seemed a bitter and divided society now seems more like a nation of people finding creative ways to show up for one another.
 
But it’s also likely that something much darker is going on, especially among the less fortunate. A study by Samantha Brooks of King’s College London finds that quarantine produces a range of bad mental health outcomes, including trauma, confusion and anger. There’s an invisible current of dread running through the world. It messes with your attention span. I don’t know about you, but I’m mentally exhausted by 5pm every day, and I think part of the cause is the unconscious stress flowing through us.
 
Many people are alone, consuming media all day. Others are trapped in homes with abusers and dysfunction. In France, reported cases of domestic violence are up by about a third.
 
Curve behind the curve:
Tyler Norris of the Well Being Trust points to a curve behind the COVID-19 curve. Every one-percentage-point increase in unemployment leads eventually to a 3.5% increase in addictions, so the pandemic’s economic effects alone will exacerbate our mental health problems down the road.
 
Psychological health in times of crisis is like a wrestling match. The situation throws stressors at you. The question is whether your coping mechanisms are strong enough to overcome them. The pandemic spreads an existential feeling of unsafety, which registers in the neurons around your heart, lungs and viscera. It alters your nervous system, changing the way you see and perceive threat.
 
It’s very hard to grasp what’s going on so deep inside. “All trauma is preverbal,” Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes in his book “The Body Keeps the Score.” “Rational brain is basically impotent to talk the emotional brain out of its own reality.” The best way to combat this visceral sense of fear and disassociation is by having disconfirming experiences. These are experiences of deep reciprocal attunement with others that make you feel viscerally safe.
 
These moments of attunement and co-regulation register in the same autonomic nervous system and overcome the fear and helplessness. Creating these experiences takes effort. “Being together is not the same as being connected,” Columbia professor Martha Welch told me.
 
Having conversations:
She recommends that people engage in deep intentional and vulnerable conversations, in which they pause - for as long as 90 seconds - after something important has been said, just to let it sink in. “You have to have the feelings conversation,” she says.
 
She and the other experts I spoke with endorse anything rhythmic. Anything that will create an experience of attunement: singing, dancing, deep eye contact, daily rituals and games. I asked the experts whether they thought it was possible to have this sort of deep, visceral attunement over the internet. They thought it was, as long you can see the other person’s face and hear vocal tone. “The internet is a huge variable in this pandemic,” van der Kolk told me. “We have a profound new way to comfort one another.”
 
Anna Freud’s famous research found that during World War II the children left in London to endure the bombings suffered less trauma than the children who were sent away from their families to the country for their “safety.” She determined that the physical injury is often not the harshest part of trauma; it’s the breakdown of relationships during and after.
 
Sharing your emotional state with the world is not for everybody, and people who feel fragile should take care. But if you feel like emailing your experience, you may give others somebody to relate to. You might help turn into a resilient community.
 
David Brooks is a noted columnist, cultural critic and author. He is also a commentator on PBS NewsHour
 

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