COVID-19: Trigger for a Global Psychological Paradigm Shift

|By Saira Ashraf Kanjoo|

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There has been much talk about the psychological impact of COVID-19 and the societal and behavioural changes resulting from it. Some problems such as fear and anxiety gained more limelight as they seem to be ingrained into the current stressful, life-threatening circumstances. However, the full psychological impacts of this pandemic are much more complicated, critical and far-reaching.

Impact of Controlled Preventive Measures

The preventive measures to avoid life threats are as demanding and stressful as the pandemic itself. The human mind is conditioned to activate the body’s red alert system to react in a defensive manner against possible threats associated with words and phrases such as ‘self-isolation’, ‘social distancing’, ‘stay at home’, ‘wear a mask and gloves’. These words and phrases are preventive measures that everyone needs to strictly follow as a general principle.

The mere fact that ‘’not following preventive measures may lead to fatal consequences’’ is sufficient to stress out the human mind. In the current scenario, the introduction of changes in social behaviours and lifestyles are not due to some intrinsic motivation such as a sense of pleasure or achievement. Instead, we are compelled to adapt accordingly simply to avoid fatal consequences. It is very much in human nature to feel repellent toward changes that are imposed by the external environment. Human beings implement changes in their social behaviours and lifestyles only when they want to. Hence, the feeling of being ‘controlled’ and ‘restricted’ by the external environment is one of the major factors causing psychological distress.

As there is no defined deadline to implement preventive measures, the atmosphere of uncertainty is further igniting psychological distress. This uncertain, controlled environment may not be bearable by every human being easily. This is why we are witnessing protests against lockdowns all over the world. People have started finding justifications to nullify the efficacy of ‘’self-isolation’’ by proposing conspiracy theories in order to get rid of controlled preventive measures. They are also violating the rules implemented by external environment just because they want to feel ‘free’.

The feeling of being controlled by the external environment may serve as a catalyst to develop passive aggression, stress and other psychological issues.

Adapting to New Realities

As discussed above, psychological dynamics associated with the current scenario are highly complicated and demanding. The anxiety and fear of losing one’s life is just the beginning of complex psychological and behavioural transitions one has to experience in order to stay alive. If we review all preventive measures attentively, the common factor is to isolate oneself from the external environment i.e. people, places, activities but the irony is that humans are not meant to be isolated.

It is against human nature to live a quiet, isolated and stagnant life. Human beings are known as ‘social animals’ because socialising is a basic component of their everyday lives. Civilisations and cultures all over the world evolved on the basis of social interactions, cooperation and support. Human beings find happiness and pleasure by interacting with friends and family members. Similarly, ‘exploration’ is also basic trait of human beings and travelling is its preferred method. Unfortunately, preventive measures that are necessary to survive this pandemic require humans to act against their nature. It is not easy for everyone to adapt completely with a new lifestyle that requires absolute self-isolation and social distancing.

Adaptation demands alterations in emotional, cognitive and behavioural aspects of human life. It may not be comfortable for everyone to work from home. Also, it is not easy for everyone to remind oneself and family members to wear mask and gloves every time they have to go outside. Many of us have not met our friends and acquaintances or visited offices/educational institutes due to the lockdown. A lot of people have lost their jobs and many others are experiencing business loss/financial crises. Children cannot play outside and we have to develop a new lifestyle to address their functional needs. Most of the working women have to work from home while also managing chores without household help, thereby doubling their burden. The ongoing uncertainty regarding suspected COVID-19 carriers and extent of the lockdown has made us all feel lost.

Naturally, this whole situation leads to frustration, distress and passive aggression. Each human being is different from the other and these individual differences can make some of us more vulnerable to fall prey to psychological issues. The ones who possess poor coping skills may react in an aggressive, depressive or anxious manner. However, those who possess strong coping skills and are emotionally stable may tend to deal with current frustrating/threatening situation as rationally as possible. Here, it is worth adding that old coping skills and thinking approaches will prove insufficient. Human beings have developed a certain set of coping skills and rational thinking based upon their previous experiences. Their minds are conditioned to respond rationally in a certain manner in a situation that may be similar to previous observations or experiences.

COVID-19 emerged in a shocking and uncertain manner. Almost all of us have never experienced such a threatening or stressful situation that poses a collective danger to human life around the world and requires isolation to survive. Just as traditional weapons cannot be used to fight against an unconventional adversary, traditional coping techniques will have to be reviewed to conform with prevailing circumstances.

Cognitive and Emotional Restructuring

To deal with the current scenario in a rational manner, the first monumental struggle human beings are going through is ‘’cognitive restructuring’’. They need to perceive ‘’restrictions and self-isolation’’ positively for widespread acceptability. They need to struggle cognitively and emotionally to accept their new lifestyle and make it more healthy and worth-living.

Human beings need to transform their thinking approaches to adapt to a new lifestyle instead of remaining in uncertainty and chaos. They should also learn to manage their emotions i.e. anxiety and fear to perceive self-isolation positively. Necessary changes to daily routines should be introduced to maintain a healthy domestic environment. Most importantly, human beings will have to change their communication skills to maintain healthy social relationships with others.

In conclusion, human beings are more likely to change their thinking perspectives, their emotional responses and social behaviours. Ripples generated by these changes will also affect existing societal norms/values and will be felt by many generations to come. Hence, we proffer that COVID-19 is not just a standalone global pandemic, it has fundamentally altered the longstanding cognitive, emotional and behavioural paradigm.

The writer is an MS-qualified and experienced Clinical Psychologist who has counseled families and law enforcement personnel. She is founder of Mind Healer Psychological Services in Rawalpindi and can be reached at: mindhealer.pk@outlook.com

The writer tweets at; Saira Ashraf

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