How to get through another Covid-19 lockdown

The gates are locking.
The gates are locking.
Image: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
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At midnight on Friday (Oct. 16) London entered into “Tier 2” lockdown. In a reversal of the past few months’ progressive relaxation of public health rules tied to the pandemic, people from different households can no longer meet indoors while bars and restaurants must close by 10 pm. This follows even more stringent restrictions imposed on other UK cities such as Liverpool and European capitals such as Paris, amid a second wave of Covid-19 infections.

While much remains up in the air, there are signs that at least parts of Europe may be edging back towards a March-style lockdown in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This would be devastating for the economy, but what about the people who power it?

It’s no secret that the lockdown didn’t have the same impact on everyone. Young people were also among those vulnerable groups who suffered the greatest emotional impact from the lockdown; at baseline, they are more likely to report feeling lonely than older adults, as are women, poor or unemployed adults, and those with mental health conditions.

Studies conducted in Europe since the start of lockdown have shown that, while people reported a significant dip in their mental health and well-being, some of those effects have since faded. Human beings can be incredibly resilient, and the relative freedom of being able to travel and once again see friends over the summer certainly helped some Europeans. But “this type of research relies on the law of averages,” points out Jenny Groarke, a lecturer in health psychology at Queen’s University Belfast, “and obscures the fact that there are some people who have been really negatively affected by the pandemic.”

Those who lost their jobs, whose friends died of Covid-19, who lived alone for months, or who cared for an infant or elderly parent while juggling full-time work had far more challenging lockdown experiences than those who were well-off, employed, and supported. And this will likely happen again if Europe enters a second lockdown—only this time, the weather will be cold and temporary furloughs may turn into permanent layoffs. So how can people psychologically and logistically prepare while making the best out of an objectively bad situation? Below are some non-exhaustive ideas.

Tips for staying sane and connected during a second lockdown

A major risk of lockdown is social isolation and loneliness, to which a solution, says Groarke, is to seek out social support and human connection. And no, this isn’t about scheduling one more Zoom happy hour (please, make them stop). It’s about knowing from experience the degree of human interaction that you need to feel happy and supported, and doing what you can to make sure you have that for the months ahead. You could ask family to check in on you regularly, make a schedule of movies to watch with friends on platforms like Teleparty, or ask neighbors if they’ll consider a socially distanced outdoor walk.

“Loneliness and isolation is such an adverse emotional experience because we are supposed to not be lonely,” says Groarke. “So it’s supposed to force us to go out and connect socially.”

If you’re one of the lucky ones with plenty of support during this time, that’s an asset you can share with your loved ones, especially for those experiencing mental health issues. “If you have a family member or a friend who you know is depressed, make the effort to stay in touch with them, because when depression is moderate or severe it’s so much harder for that person to reach out and ask for help,” says Jennifer Wild, an associate professor in experimental psychology at Oxford University.

In January Wild, who is also a consultant clinical psychologist, published a book called Be Extraordinary: 7 Key Skills to Transform Your Life From Ordinary to Extraordinary. In an interview with Quartz she shared some tips from her book that she believes could also help people manage anxiety or distraction while in lockdown:

  • Plan ahead: “As much as we might rebel against the idea, it’s really important to have a routine,” Wild told Quartz, “particularly Monday to Friday, so that we’re not staying in bed all day and getting depressed.” She recommends planning ahead, whether alone or with others, and making time for at least one enjoyable activity a day. This can apply to those who are out of work too: Schedule in time for a long walk or some exercise, meals, hobbies, etc.
  • Three-minute carrots: If you’re working from home and feeling down, it might be more difficult to focus on what you have to do. Wild suggests setting short achievable tasks, like finishing one chapter of a book, and then deciding every three to five minutes whether to keep going or reward yourself with a “carrot.” That carrot can be anything that makes you happy, like a few minutes of your favorite show or a walk in the park.
  • Worry diary: If you find yourself worrying a lot during this time you might find it helpful to keep a worry diary and reflect back on it at the end of every week. As a consultant clinical psychologist, Wild typically works out with her patients what percentage of the things they worried about actually happened: “We normally find that about 90% don’t come true.”
  • Positive images: If you find it difficult to stop worrying, Wild recommends a simple nightly exercise. “We can break the cycle of overthinking by calling to mind a positive image…to interrupt the cycle of worry. It can be of you performing really well in some area that you’re worried about, or it could just be an image of a beach or the sunshine.”

Finally, if you are someone who deals poorly with loneliness and social isolation, or if you have an underlying mental health condition, you should seek out professional help. But as Groarke points out, “there’s simply not enough psychological support available, whether that’s virtual or in person.” She argues governments need to fix systemic issues like these to make lockdown more bearable for the most vulnerable; in other words, “we really need to help people manage that feeling so that they’re not tempted to break the restrictions.”

Post-traumatic growth:

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade

For many people, a successful second lockdown will be one in which they kept their jobs and didn’t get sick. But there’s also an opportunity for what’s known as “post-traumatic growth” for those who want and can afford it. Groarke defines it as “the opposite of post-traumatic stress,” in that it implies growing from adversity.

First, says Wild, “we may never have this time again.” The first coronavirus lockdown was a genuinely unprecedented event in human history; in much of the world, all economic activity stopped, the busiest sites in the world emptied, and billions of people stayed inside their homes. People suddenly had more time, either because they weren’t working, or because they didn’t commute or do anything outside of work. While for some, this extra time went to additional childcare duties, for others, it was an opportunity to pick up a new language or learn to bake bread. There’s no need to be that ambitious—in fact, in her book, Wild advocates “daring to be average”—“but if you do have a hobby, it’s a wonderful opportunity to gain some skills in that area without the pressure of having to be perfect.”

The pandemic has shone a light on existing societal problems, including loneliness and burnout among young people and social isolation among the old and the vulnerable. Covid-19 may lead to some positive change in these areas. If you got to know your neighbors when you clapped for healthcare workers every evening, you might be more likely to reach out to them in the future. And the pandemic, Groarke says, has highlighted the need for community and the value of “social connection as opposed to social life.”

Finally, a lockdown is a chance to be kind to yourself, says Groarke, because it “promotes optimism and optimism promotes problem solving.” “Extend the compassion you give others to yourself,” she argues—this is a harder time for some than others, but it’s not an easy time for anyone.