15 Sep The Pandemic’s Toll on Mental Health and Relationships: What Can We Learn?
When Mark asked me to write a post about the toll the pandemic is taking on mental health and relationships, I didn’t want simply to detail the ways it’s hard to live through a pandemic. Nor did I want to throw a bunch of statistics at you about how many people are having a difficult time. You know that it’s like living in the world’s least entertaining Groundhog-Day-meets-dystopian-thriller film.
If you’re like me, you’re sick of kvetching about 2020. The fact is, though, that I don’t know anyone, myself included, who isn’t struggling in one way or another right now.
After a lot of reflection, I’ve concluded that a big reason why 2020 is so draining is that our usual coping strategies don’t work like we want or expect. Most are aimed at reducing the source of our distress or dealing with the emotional aftermath. This pandemic is ongoing. We’re stuck in the middle of it, with no end in sight, and no way to speed the process along.
That doesn’t mean we’re helpless, though. Personally, I’m a huge believer in practicing self-compassion as a means of coping, almost no matter the situation. I’m talking a formal practice of self-compassion, as outlined by Dr. Kristin Neff and others.https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2770146‘>2 https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/‘>4 https://richarddehoop.nl/upload/file/self-determination.pdf‘>6
It seems to me that most common coping strategies address competence (developing mastery) or relatedness (connecting to others). However, loss of autonomy—the freedom to control our own actions—is undoubtedly a primary reason we’re struggling.
The problem is, there’s not much we can do about that. The best option is to focus on controlling the things we can control and accepting those we can’t (major serenity prayer vibes, here). I’m not suggesting that we should be reasserting our autonomy by flouting the rules and doing whatever we want, virus be damned. No, the point is to understand why things still feel hard even when we’re trying our best to practice self-care so that we might give ourselves grace.
Questions I’m asking myself:
- Am I meeting myself where I’m at, or am I using generic coping strategies that, while well-meaning, aren’t really what I need?
- Am I blaming myself or feeling guilty for struggling, instead of accepting that the pandemic is hard in ways that are hard to cope with directly?
What Can We Learn from People Who are Doing Well?
I’m fascinated by people who are actually doing better now than before. Some kids are thriving at home, free from the social and academic pressures of traditional schooling. Lots of adults are realizing that they are happier and more productive working from home.
Getting back to the topic of this post, when I started to dig into the data on how the pandemic is affecting relationships, I expected to find dire news. I didn’t. While it’s logistically harder to see friends or travel to visit distant relatives, many people have seen their close relationships improve.
FThe Behavioural Science and Health Research Department at University College London is conducting weekly surveys looking at the psychological response to the pandemic, along with other socioemotional and behavioral variables. More than 90,000 people have responded. As of writing, data are available for the first 23 weeks here.
In July, week 16, the researchers asked about relationships. The majority of respondents said the pandemic had not changed their relationships with spouses, friends, family members, or coworkers. More people felt that their friendships had suffered since the beginning of the pandemic, compared to the number whose friendships improved—22 versus 15 percent of respondents, respectively. The data were similar for coworkers. However, relationships with some family members and neighbors were more likely to have improved:
- 27 percent said their romantic relationship got better, while 18 percent felt it was worse
- 35 percent reported their relationship with children living at home had improved, versus 17 percent who said it had suffered
- 26 percent had better relationships with neighbors, versus 8 percent worse
I really wish there was more attention to being paid to those people. Why are they doing better? What’s their secret? It must have something to do with the time we have to invest differently in relationships now, but is there more to it than that? Academics are going to be writing about this for decades, I’m sure.
Shaping a “New Normal”
Since we have no choice about living through a pandemic, I hope we can at least learn from it.
When we go back to “normal,” it won’t be—and shouldn’t be—the normal we knew before. The ways people are suffering and thriving both offer important lessons about human nature, our ability to cope, and the ways we do and do not support one another effectively. That some people are doing better during an arguably terrible time is telling. It says a lot about the challenges and shortcomings of our pre-pandemic way of life.
The question is, will we heed the lessons?
What about you—how are you doing, really? Will you go back to “business as usual,” or have you gained any insights from the past six months that will change how you approach things in the future?
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