It's obvious, of course. There are the very real hazards of becoming ill, penniless or running out of daily essentials. These are stressful times, so it’s no wonder our brains are ramping up the fight or flight response, resulting in symptoms of anxiety.
But there’s more going on here. For a start, our brains do not like uncertainty. A 2016 study into the relationship between levels of uncertainty and our stress response, demonstrated that all measures of stress (sweat production, pupil dilation, cortisol levels) were at their peak when the uncertainty was highest.
In fact, uncertainty is worse than knowing something bad is going to happen. If your train has been cancelled and you know you are definitely going to miss an important interview, that’s actually less stressful than if the train is running late and there is a chance you may just make it in time. If you fear you are about to be made redundant, the chances are your stress levels are higher than your laid-off colleagues’. Being made redundant removes the uncertainty.
So, one of the factors in our current situation is the lack of certainty. No one knows whether they will succumb to the virus, how long the social and workplace restrictions will remain in place, and what the world will be like in 6 months’ time. It’s no wonder anxiety levels are high.
And then there’s the social aspect. As stated in a 2013 paper from the Economic and Social Research Council:
Social isolation has long been known as a key trigger for mental illness, while supportive relationships with friends, family and neighbours are beneficial to the mental health of individuals and the population. Other forms of social interaction such as volunteering are also known to boost wellbeing.
Of course, the other major factor in our current situation is the limits placed on face to face contact.
So, what’s to be done?
Well, there are a number of steps we can all take to protect our mental wellbeing:
1. Recognise that this situation is not going to last forever. We will get on top of the virus, businesses will re-open and we will be able to get on with our lives. That much is certain.
2. Recognise that dwelling on problems makes them seem much worse. So endeavour to limit the amount of time you spend talking about, reading about or viewing negative aspects of our current situation. Focusing on them is not going to change the outcome, it will just make you unhappy. Limit your exposure to finding out what you need to know and then get on with doing something more enjoyable.
3. Use technology to keep in touch with friends and family. This is so important. If you are not technically savvy, there is always the phone, but if you have access to Skype or Facetime, now is the time to arrange virtual get-togethers. As well as informal chats, sign up to group activities. The internet is awash with novel ways to be sociable, from online pub quizzes to board games, remote relaxation classes to dance lessons.
4. Take action. Get things done. It could be something as simple as tidying the airing cupboard, shredding old receipts or sorting through your DVD collection. You will be rewarded with feel-good hormones that will lift your spirits.
5. Feed your brain with positive inputs. If there’s nothing that appeals on TV, then listen to some podcasts or watch some TED talks. Choose your subject well to make sure it’s nicely uplifting. With thousands of topics, there is bound to be something you enjoy.
Above all, remember, things will get better.