Quarantine Life: A Psychological Survival Guide

by | Apr 17, 2020 | Latest, Psychology, Self-care, Wellness | 0 comments

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While the government is still outlining a plan to manage the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, the lockdown and “social distancing” regulations remain firmly in place. However, these restrictions have overwhelmed our mental capacities and resulted in psychological and emotional distress. How can we manage this stress?

By: Hasmita Hardudh-Dass

Halfway through the lockdown signs of collapsing due to panic and fear are becoming imminent. To cope, we are devouring every piece of information available, panic buying and hoarding essential items, while those with limited resources and access remain trampled upon.   

We sit in our homes glued to the TV , radio, and cellphones where we are bombarded hourly with information about the virus both in our country and globally. We are also bombarded with memes and parodies taking the mickey out of the panic surrounding the virus.

It’s all things COVID-19, all day, everyday, and we ask ourselves, “Are we on a path to self-destruction? Are we becoming an endangered species? Will this end? Or will this be our end?”

Psychological effects of a lockdown – social distancing 

Before this pandemic, there were already a staggering number of people suffering from mental health issues – depression, anxiety, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to name a few.  

COVID-19 comes with a range of physiological symptoms and complications, but, regardless of the nature of this external threat, it’s our internal response that will determine its psychological impact on each of us.

This pandemic will certainly see a surge in these numbers, as is already evident in the media and reports by mental health care workers. While people who are already in some sort of treatment for mental illness could fragment further under the stress associated with the restrictions and consequences of lockdown.  

How we deal with this lockdown period takes into consideration assorted vulnerabilities and hardiness – our response to stress and trauma in terms of flight/fight response, which includes our built-in responses to dealing with stress and adversity.

We may not have previously experienced a situation like this pandemic in our lives, so we may need to dig deep to come up with the mental and physical resources to cope. However, we may have had similar feelings before, such as unbearable fear, panic and anxiety, and we could call on these experiences to help us deal with this experience.

Also, how we get through this period and deal with the consequences thereof will depend on several interacting forces: The nature of COVID-19 and the toll it takes on our personal, social networks and country as a whole – how exposed and vulnerable we are (age, health), our innate and biochemical defence mechanisms, our psychological history (the presence of mood disorders, anxiety, phobias, and childhood and family traumas), our support networks, and capacity to think or act rationally during and after this period.

There are also several biopsychosocial effects, ranging from mild to moderate to severe, including anxiety associated with fear of infection, which increases focus on bodily symptoms, rushing to consult with doctors or stocking up on over the counter medications.

Yes, COVID-19 comes with a range of physiological symptoms and complications, but, regardless of the nature of this external threat, it’s our internal response that will determine its psychological impact on each of us.

What is also important is the duration of this lockdown. For now, the ‘fixed’ time frame offers us some relief that this period will come to an end. But what if it is further extended or some of the restrictions remain in place for longer? How will we cope? This unpredictability makes us further vulnerable.

There are also several biopsychosocial effects, ranging from mild to moderate to severe, including anxiety associated with fear of infection, which increases focus on bodily symptoms, rushing to consult with doctors or stocking up on over the counter medications.

Stress associated with loss on income, unemployment, financial instability, lack of resources, poor access to resources and not enough provisions. And lack of information or bombardment of information of all things COVID-19.

Fear of social isolation and loneliness (which is already a global epidemic). And some may also lose their sense of purpose due to the interruption in goals and events (e.g. school, work, church etc.) The list is endless.

Coping when our freedom of movement has been regulated

This is something veteran South Africans experienced during the Apartheid era. However, how does this affect our younger generations?

This confinement can be distressing or give rise to ‘acting out’ behaviours, ranging from anger to rebelliousness – as seen immediately upon the announcement of the impending lockdown – to a complete numbness or shut down of the state of mind.

Some people may attempt to become over-controlling and demanding, in an attempt to gain some agency over this situation. These reactions may also have a consequence of increasing interpersonal conflict, abuse and violence, and aggression within the homes.

We may also project this sense of restriction and helplessness on those around us, such as spouses and children who may be sharing spaces with us during this lockdown. 

Some people may attempt to become over-controlling and demanding, in an attempt to gain some agency over this situation. These reactions may also have a consequence of increasing interpersonal conflict, abuse and violence, and aggression within the homes.

Police Minister Bheki Cele already announced that there has been a surge in gender-based violence (GBV) cases in the country since the lockdown has been imposed –  with an estimated 87 000 reported cases at the time of the announcement.

Others may shut down and distance themselves from any interpersonal or intimate contact. Sadly, some relationships will not be able to withstand the taxing nature of these reactions, and many families and relationships may struggle to remain cohesive during and post-lockdown.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms

It is not news that some people who struggle to manage psychologically or emotionally in difficult situations resort to means of self-medicating as a way of coping. 

Self-destructive behaviours such as substance abuse, compulsive behaviours (eating, sex, cleaning, gambling), phobias, isolation, exploitation of relationships, impulsivity, controlling and destructive interpersonal behaviours are some of the classic behavioural responses to dealing with distress during lockdown period.  

The feelings that the coping mechanisms are trying to keep at bay may increase levels of anxiety, depression, isolation and alienation, leading to increased dysfunction and emotional dysregulation.

These coping mechanisms may have previously been employed to cope with other social and psychological stressors, so they become the first port of call when dealing with stress presented by lockdown.  

These mechanisms themselves have a rebound effect that comes with continued or increased use. The feelings that the coping mechanisms are trying to keep at bay may increase levels of anxiety, depression, isolation and alienation, leading to increased dysfunction and emotional dysregulation.

Again, these behaviours have statistically been reported to be on the increase pre-COVID-19. These behaviours may also further intensify impairment that already exists in relationships.

Feelings of agitation, irritation, depression and anxiety will also increase in both those employing the unhealthy mechanisms and the loved ones exposed to this.

Victimisation and vulnerabilities may also increase in proportion in the use of these negative coping mechanisms. And breaking this cycle of destruction when it is made as a conscious decision requires motivation and commitment.  

However, when something like lockdown forces the restriction of these behaviours due to lack of access then emotional dysregulation may increase, leading to an increase in self-harming, violent and aggressive behaviours and mental breakdowns.

Fortunately, during this period of lockdown, ‘essential services‘ remain operational, and some services offering online and face to face support for these very situations have been increased to accommodate the potential fallout.

A Psychological Survival Guide during lockdown: 

As South Africans, we have nothing to compare this pandemic and subsequent lockdown to. As a result, our understandings and consequent response is happening in ‘real-time’, and our sense of control is indeed a slippery slope.

We are not psychically equipped to deal with this. However, we have to believe that all decisions that are made on our behalf are with our well-being and safety in mind.

“STAY AT HOME!” This is actively demanding. We have to put effort into this and talk ourselves through it.

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” – unknown.

Resilience is one of the most important factors that will assist us through this uncharted terrain.

You can’t control this; you have to deal with it – so stay calm and positive. This will increase your capacity to think rationally and logically.

Limit your intake of all things COVID-19. You know enough already.

Occasionally, allow yourself to have a good wallow in self-pity and to express your fear and anxiety by talking to someone. However, limit this. Once you have talked and wallowed, learn to move on.  

Talk to others about how you are feeling and do not suppress your feelings and pretend all is well. This will only compound your feelings down the line.

Also, listen actively to how others are experiencing things. Avoid criticisms, negative thinking and judgments. This is not helpful.

If your goals have been interrupted or postponed, use this opportunity to re-evaluate them and adopt new strategies for achieving these when the time arrives.

Brush up on your ‘ubuntu’. Enhance your humanity by helping and connecting with others who may need assistance during this time.

If anything, this pandemic will give South Africans a renewed sense of connection and togetherness. Be part of this.

Connect spiritually and mentally. Meditate, do some purposeful breathing exercises, go outside and hug the sunshine.

Give thanks and gratitude because we still have so much to be thankful for.

Start writing or documenting your life during COVID-19 Lockdown.

Hasmita Hardudh-Dass is a Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist in Independent Practice.

To seek professional help contact SADAG (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group ) on: 011 234 8182

Suicide Emergency line: 0800 567 567 / SMS 31393

24hr Helpline: 0800 456 789

Or call LifeLine, 24/7 24hr Toll Free: 086 1 322 322
24/7 counselling: 011 728 1347
Whatsapp: 065 989 9238

If you display any of the flu-like symptoms and suspect you might have COVID-19, contact your doctor or call the public hotline number on 0800-029-999 immediately.


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