Pandemic stress and social distancing
I’m starting and closing this post with a great quote from Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand: “Thank you for all that you’re about to do. Please, be strong, be kind and unite against COVID-19.” Great advice for all of us! We are facing a monumental challenge. There’s no doubt about it. A pandemic, such as the one we’re currently experiencing, causes a great deal of stress. We worry about ourselves, our loved ones and our jobs. All this worry and stress lead to anxiety, and that brings about a wide array of harmful effects. We not only get less sleep; the quality of our sleep drops drastically. Many turn to alcohol and/or drugs to alleviate our anxiety. In addition to being fatigued and short-tempered, our health begins to deteriorate because of existing conditions. And worst of all, our perception of risk increases. A case in point is the 2009 swine flu pandemic, which led to mass hysteria. According to a study at the University of Michigan, “people perceived H1N1 to be even deadlier than the Ebola outbreak in Africa. The truth was the opposite.”
Research indicated that as “perceived risk” increased—regardless of the change in actual risk—feelings of fear and anxiety also increased. And that increased the possibility of dangerous social or personal behavior. Backing this up is an article written by Jaimee Bell in the Big Think. “This is dangerous when the virus doesn’t exist like with most mass hysteria cases, but it’s even more dangerous when we’re talking about a real virus that does exist,” Bell writes. “The fear and paranoia around catching the virus lead to panic-purchasing and the spread of misinformation, which furthers the anxiety and fear in the general public.” The next step is quarantine and social distancing.
We’re going to have to get used to social distancing. It’s going to be the norm for weeks and perhaps months to come. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the leading national public health institute of the US, defines social distancing as “avoiding congregate settings and maintaining a distance of approximately 2 meters from others,” which is a broad definition with a lot of room for interpretation. While practically all experts agree that social distancing will help slow down the spread of COVID-19’s spread, many others are worried that it may have unforeseen consequences. If this continues for weeks and months – and I suspect it will – social isolation will increase stress, depression and loneliness, which, in turn, is likely to worsen any underlying health conditions. How long can we practice social distancing before it becomes too much – a few weeks, months or a year?
A new type of “shaming”
Social media is starting to show evidence of “Quarantine Shaming,” criticizing people who aren’t following social distancing rules. Social norms, which can be difficult to navigate at any time, are evolving and changing rapidly in the age of COVID-19. As schools close and shelter-in-place and quarantine orders sweep across many countries, the divide between those who are stringently practicing self-isolation and those who are still trying to go about some semblance of a normal life has never been more evident. Moreover, what was socially acceptable even 48 hours ago may now be taboo, as government officials race to contain the virus with ever-expanding circles of social isolation. Grit, resilience and a level-head are things we need the most today but perhaps have the least. We should ask ourselves why this is so. But I digress. I’m avoiding the gym, but the outdoors offers many benefits everyone needs today. Getting out into nature or “forest bathing,” as it’s sometimes called, provides Vitamin D, makes people happier and helps people heal. I’m trying to stay healthy and positive!
Positive health and the Stockdale Paradox
Social distancing will test us in many ways. We’re not designed to live isolated for long periods of time. We are social creatures and need one another. We want to interact. Positive health includes optimism, of course. In one study, researchers have examined the “positive health” of American POWs of the Vietnam War who were imprisoned the longest. And while researchers concluded that optimism predicts “positive physical and psychological health” and provides “long-term protective benefits,” it turns out we humans need more than that to cope and move forward. Enter the “Stockdale Paradox.”
The “Stockdale Paradox”
Admiral William Stockdale was the highest-ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. He was tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973 and lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again. When he was asked how he survived, he said: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.” When asked who didn’t make it out, he replied: “The optimists.”
They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–-which you can never afford to lose–-with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” The main gist of this concept is that you must balance realism with optimism. Pessimists and optimists died because they had no resilience or grit to support them when milestones came and went without being released from prison. Resilience and grit will help you be realistic about short-term reality while remaining relentlessly optimistic about long-term possibility. Optimism is important, but we also need grit and resilience to survive and thrive. And most important, we need kindness. It’s a colossal challenge, but we will get through it. “Thank you for all that you’re about to do. Please, be strong, be kind and unite against COVID-19.” Great advice for all of us!