Into isolation

Prof. Lorraine Sherr writes about settling into a new reality of physical distancing from both a personal and psychological perspective in her latest entry to the blog.

Where in the world are you?  Different countries have staggered impacts of Covid-19.  We watch the news and see the impact on a society from the moment the pandemic dawns.  It is important to understand the stages of the isolation process and how it affects our actions, behaviours and adaptation.  They say as long ago as 1664 Samuel Pepys noted in his diary during the bubonic plague, “I looked upon the street to see a gaggle of striplings making fair merry and no doubt spreading the plague well about!”  So isolation is not a new thing and it is one that most of the world is currently contemplating – at different stages.

For many they start in an unawareness phase, where the stoires are distant television reports, far away visions that one observes in passing – perhaps with interest.  Never a thought that it could come knocking on your door.  This phase then moves to the “it’s getting closer” phase.  Countries start with a report of a few people, invariably travellers – or any form of “other”.  “Other” just means “not me”.  It is a way of understanding but distancing.  The numbers ratchet up – and the speed of increase becomes a game of distraction tempered with disbelief.  There are always those who go through the “untouchable stage”.  They believe strongly that it is for others and not them.  That this virus will not reach them, hurt them, affect them.  They are invincible.  They stare the prohibitions in the face and go onto Bondi beach, they stream to the seaside and public parks, they treat school closure as a bit of fun, they go to parties.  We have seen examples from Australia, London, Miami.  At some trigger point, people reach the realisation that it is true.  Either a self realisation or a law enforcement one.  The full extent of isolation can suddenly dawn.  Yes it really means staying indoors or at home.   It really means not going out, not seeing your friends or even your family.  Time stretches out in a giddy tumble.  A day is fine, a week perhaps –  but how long is this going to last? There are those who slowly withdraw while others do it in a sudden gesture.  And then you sit.  The realisation dawns.  What is happening and the reality of it needs to be taken in.  Psychology guides us to reality checking and checking our coping.  Don’t catastrophise – it is unhelpful and unproductive.

If this is what adults do – how does it feel for children?  They usually follow the adult approach.  They look to them for guidance and follow their acts as well as their reactions.  Children are often very pragmatic.  They see humour and can use their faculty for fantasy much more creatively than adults – we should learn from them.  Children are often more accepting than you would give them credit for.  If you have a rule and an explanation they will take it in.  So silence, subterfuge and lies (however kindly meant) are unhelpful; while honesty, clarity and reassurance will go a long way.  Children may not express their emotions the same way as adults – that does not mean they do not feel them.  They may have bad dreams, bad moods, bad behaviour.  Understand and lend a hand.  This is a time of reflection, action, creativity and challenge.  Social media and virtual worlds are both an aide and a barrier.  Everything we know about balance, filtering, and sensibility needs to be used at this time.

So as we all float into isolation, remember that you have two options.  Make it awful or make it pleasant.  Yes you still have your choice.  So lean into it rather than fight it.  Use the isolation productively.  Gather your stoic side, replenish your resilience, add a spoon of organisation, a pinch of routine and a large cup of humour.  If you can’t – your children probably can.  My nephew had some good ideas.  Hope it makes you smile as you wonder what to do with all the toilet rolls you bought in panic.

Covid creativity


Lorraine is a Clinical Psychologist and a Professor of Clinical and Health Psychology in the Research department of Global health and Head of the  Health Psychology Unit at University College London.  She also serves on the Steering Committee of the MHPSS Collaborative.

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