#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek - What will be the impact of the ‘new normal’, under lockdown and characterised by social distancing?
While coronavirus has brought tragedy to many, Dr Natasha Yasmin Felles, Clinical Psychologist and a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, looks for where there may be positive outcomes of our shared experience:
Over the last few weeks, we have come across some overwhelming words like ‘COVID-19’, ‘pandemic’, and ‘lockdown’, and the current period we are living in (and the upcoming future) is often stated as a period of the ‘new’ normal. This state has brought significant changes in all of our lives, which have consequently affected our mental wellbeing.
An unequal normality?
During this crisis, I have personally come across the statement “we are all in this together”. However, I always question this and ponder if we are all actually ‘in this together’? I guess the answer for me is a definite no when it comes to assessing the external determinants which help us understand the impact of lockdown.
I am currently working from home, have a to-do list that keeps me busy and a stable income that keeps me going.
I am quite happy being at home, but, contrary to my circumstances, I know people in my own family who do not have a to-do list and have no income coming in. With a probable forthcoming recession, they might struggle to find work in the next few months. This has been so stressful for these people that their mental health has been negatively affected, and therefore it is important to acknowledge that not all of us have been affected by lockdown in the same way.
Even within the same family, people are not necessarily in the same ‘boat’ when we look at these external elements like finances, occupation, health, etc. All over the world, people who have younger children or a family member with some chronic illness or disability have taken up additional work, and if they have lost their jobs or have been furloughed, then that is an added stress.
There are a host of other variables like an individual coping mechanism, availability of resources and support system, etc that determines which ‘boat’ you will be in. So, for me, this ‘new’ normal is very subjective, and, therefore, whatever changes this brings in the near future will be very different for all of us.
A more positive outlook
Since we are coming across a lot of negative news on a regular basis, I would like to focus on some positive aspects. As a professional, I believe that in this ‘new normal’ the focus has shifted to all the different concepts we study in positive psychology, or at least that is what I am hoping for.
Positive psychology studies human experiences like optimism, happiness, and hope (Snyder & Lopez, 2001). These are all ‘internal elements’ which are paramount in determining positive mental health.
All these variables also consider that from time to time, due to various personal and environmental factors (like lockdown at present), humans ‘can’ experience negative emotions. Therefore, the word ‘can’ is something I would like to emphasise.
It is important to note that not all humans will experience negative emotions during this pandemic, and it is possible to achieve some form of psychological wellbeing for everyone.
Signs of hope
Hope, for example, is a cardinal aspect of positive psychology. Theorists argue that when we have a goal-directed activity, it creates hopeful thoughts which lead us to achieve positive emotions and fosters positive mental health (Snyder & Lopez, 2001).
Even though there are individual differences in how hopeful humans feel for their future, and that also depends on various environmental factors, I believe even in this pandemic we all are in the same boat when it comes to our internal feelings of being hopeful.
Let’s take the example of the video that went viral a few weeks ago which showed how neighbours across Italy played music together on their balconies and found a sense of togetherness. While I watched the video from the UK, one of my friends from India recently mentioned how the video made her feel hopeful that we can still find happiness from within during a crisis situation like this.
This has generated a lot of positive emotions among many around the globe. So, it might be right to say that considering such internal determinants of mental health, we all still might be in the same boat – or are, at least, trying to be.
Achieving well-being and finding meaning
The founder of positive psychology, Dr Martin Seligman, stated that there are three important aspects that help humans to achieve wellbeing: engagement, meaning, and pleasure (Seligman 2002). Some researchers like Ryff (1989) believe that wellbeing comes from achieving a sense of mastery over the environment, creating meaningful long-lasting relationships, and finding a purpose.
Therefore, one can achieve well-being even though there are environmental hindrances. If we focus on one of these aspects, let’s say engagement, it states that engaging in activities that are engrossing, helps in achieving long-term well-being (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Now consider the pandemic, and even though there are numerous environmental stressors, lockdown has given a lot of family members the opportunity to get together and engage in various meaningful activities.
We can see on various social media platforms how people have started cooking together as a family, are having game nights, and are engaging in various other forms of activities, spending quality time together.
For those who live alone, technology has been a boon where you can find several apps like Houseparty, which help you spend fun time with your family and friends online. And for people who might not have close family or friends, they are now getting help from their neighbours and are connecting with the community around them.
This in the long-term can bring families and communities together and add meaning to their lives.
United by our collective experience
In a recent address, the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson rightly said that as citizens we have helped our communities by staying at home and keeping ourselves and others safe. I believe the message gave most of us a sense of fulfilment and purpose. Most of the people I have talked to during this lockdown have said how they feel there is no purpose in being home, and this feeling has generated a low mood.
Thus, the recent message might have helped many in feeling that they have contributed towards a greater good and this sense of purpose would have definitely created some positive emotions.
However, from a professional perspective, we can also use such an understanding to develop future interventions for those who might still not feel the same.
Even though these are challenging times, I am personally rooting for the fact that this new normality might bring positive changes in our lives in the long run. Despite the difficult external circumstances, people all over the world have started finding hope and meaning which are evident on various online platforms.
It might be right to say that this pandemic has made us all feel united.
Moreover, a major focus on positive psychology and its interventions might be a change we will experience in this area of science.
Dr Natasha Yasmin Felles, Clinical Psychologist and a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row
Ryff, C.D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1069–1081.
Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasing fulfilment. New York: Free Press.
Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.). (2001). Handbook of positive psychology. Oxford University Press.