"Did you know by the year 2050 antibiotics will become ineffective? I will only be 40 when that happens!” said my 11-year-old cousin, rushing into the room with the latest nugget of information he had stumbled upon the internet. This got me thinking about the long-term ramifications the Covid-19 pandemic will have on our worldview, especially how that, during the lockdown, technology is our only window to the outside world.
As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies worldwide, millions of people in Pakistan and across the globe are self-isolating after government-imposed lockdowns to impede its spread. While self-quarantine will safeguard our physical health, experts are warning that it might consequently lead to a mental health crisis post-outbreak. Isolation is a major trigger for people suffering from suicidal ideation and psychological disorders in the first place.
Globally, the Covid-19 virus has resulted in a marked spike in psychological issues among the general population. Researchers at Psychiatrictimes.com anticipate the effects of infectious disease threats to manifest as sheer anxiety and panic: worry about getting an infection, worry about loved ones getting ill, and worry when related symptoms — even minor — are present. It is estimated that this pandemic is rendering people with mental illnesses vulnerable, especially those suffering from anxiety, paranoia, depression and suicidal tendencies. To put things in to perspective, according to the World Health Organisation, 800,000 people die each year because of suicide, that is, one person every 40 seconds. Latest figures indicate that more than 14 million Pakistanis suffer from some form of mental disorder, while the country’s suicide rate is estimated to be 2.9 per 100,000 of the population.
The constant news about the proliferation of positive cases around the world is already causing mass panic and overwhelming stress. The tentative incubation period of the virus and its possible asymptomatic transmission create additional fear and anxiety. In addition, the unprecedented large-scale quarantine measures are likely to have detrimental psycho-social effects on us.
The last part is a significant aspect in all Asian collectivist cultures like ours, that thrive on social interactions and extended family gatherings. Our culture sustains itself on convening for all sorts of reasons — religious, social and even to celebrate food! So the current situation is extremely unusual for most of us and it might take us a while to acclimatise to such isolation.
As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies, self-isolation amidst lockdowns can trigger psychological disorders. Here’s how to avoid them
A state-wide lockdown further aggravates the situation. Everybody bunkered down indoors is combating mounting anxiety with recurrent bouts of depression and helplessness. Those who are the sole breadwinners for their family are anxious over job insecurity and everyone is dreading the financial fallout and the eventual recession that will be brought about in the wake of the pandemic. Parents, especially of toddlers, now have to make sure they keep their children entertained at home 24/7 which adds to their stress. Youngsters are mourning the loss of their social lives and this sometimes manifests in the form of frequent squabbling at home.
Zahra Ali, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at University of Karachi explains how we can best grapple with our radical new reality and make it work to the best of our advantage. “Try putting things into perspective,” she says. “Pandemics are not an alien phenomena. In fact, the world has experienced its fair share of pandemics since the beginning of time. What is hopeful to learn is that they are not permanent. We should be looking at Covid-19 for what it really is. It is a virus that is not deadly unless there are premorbid chronic conditions. Ninety-seven percent of the people recover.’’
The current situation is exacerbated by the constant barrage of news updates on the pandemic, which results in cognitive and sensory overload. “Remember that this virus is highly contagious but not generally life-threatening,” says Ali. “Extracting big and irrational conclusions based on little information can result in unreasonable fear and restlessness. Question your conclusions and look for evidence. If a pandemic was really the end of the world, we would not even have existed today.”
Being mindful of our emotions and thought patterns as well as regulating them is key for keeping calm. “It is okay to feel fearful, upset or anxious — remember there is no right way to feel during uncertain times,” Ali says. “However, emotions need to be kept in check as either extreme can be dangerous. While dwelling too much on negativity will wear you down, hushing your authentic emotions and denying reality will also make you vulnerable to making risky decisions. Try to look at the brighter side of the picture, every situation comes with its pros and cons. This time may be seen as an opportunity for introspection. Cherish your blessings. It will do more good to pay attention to oneself and one’s family and rekindle a spiritual connection with the Almighty.”
During this period of social distancing, with no distractions in the form of outdoor recreation and the seemingly worsening outbreak, our mental health is at stake. It is crucial that we actively work on our psychological well-being. Here are a few general guidelines to get you started:
Stay socially connected while maintaining social distance
Prolonged isolation can be daunting on the nerves. The American Psychological Association says, “Maintaining social networks can foster a sense of normality and provide valuable outlets for sharing feelings and relieving stress.” So reach out to your friends and family via call, text or video call the moment you start to mentally spiral downwards.
Minimise tracking of COVID-19
Learn to differentiate between panic and awareness. Limit your exposure to news and social media updates. If you are using social media apps, try to follow accounts that keep you happy and entertained.
Focus on the Facts and Keep Perspective
Get information only from legitimate and credible sources. Do not rely on fearmongering WhatsApp forwards and Facebook posts for awareness and always fact-check the information you are passing on to others. Learn to read data and figures. Yes, Covid-19 is highly communicable, but statistics show that most people who contract it will only experience mild symptoms.
It releases endorphins — neurotransmitters known to be mood elevators — and reduces levels of stress hormones. Mental relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation and progressive muscular relaxation greatly alleviate psychological tension. The best part about these techniques is that they can be easily done at home, so incorporate them in your daily regime.
Set a Routine
Structure and organise your day. Keep a schedule where you plan activities for the entire day. Binge-watching shows on Netflix and YouTube the entire day will eventually make you stir-crazy and eat up whole chunks of your days. Pace yourself — set aside a couple of hours exclusively for each task, but remember to switch activities throughout the day to prevent monotony.
Build Your Resume
Websites like MIT OpenCourseWare, Stanford Online, Coursera and many others are offering reputable, free online courses on a wide range of subjects, ranging from robotics to nutrition. Some of these university courses even offer college/university credits.
Invest in Tangible Activities That You Can Continue After This Situation Subsides
You know that book you always wanted to write or that masterpiece you always wanted to paint but never had the time for? Now is the ideal time to work on that. After all, you have nowhere to be!
Learn a New Hobby or Skill
Utilise this idle time for your own benefit by learning something you always wanted to but other commitments kept getting in the way of. Take up gardening, aerobics or any other activity you have been waiting to knock off your bucket list.
Work on Your Lifestyle and Self-care
Focus on what is in your locus of control. Practise clean eating and clean living. Work on your sleep hygiene. Indulge in elaborate self-care routines, be it skincare, fitness or mental health.
The writer has a Masters in Clinical Psychology and writes for several international publications
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 5th, 2020