Psychology: A Year in Lockdown

Psychology: A Year in Lockdown - The impact of lockdown on relationships and the individual.

No man is an island, entire on itself
every man is a small piece of the Continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; 
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; 
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for THEE...

(John Donne 1624) [meditation XVII]

Humans realized very early in our existence as a species that our chances for survival and success increase dramatically when we stick together. From our distant cave-dwelling ancestors forming the early societies to the complex modern social structures today where most of us are living in a modern metropolitan environment, the formula has remained largely unchanged. We rely on each other to evolve as a species and succeed both collectively as well as an individual (Bjorklund, 2003). Every aspect of our physical, emotional and psychological existence is connected to and often reliant upon others (Buss, 2001). In the exceptional circumstances like a long lasting lockdown that comes as a response to a global pandemic, all three aforementioned aspects of a person’s wellbeing are under threat. Our access to paid work; and therefore the means to acquire material means important to our comfort but also these essential to our survival is restricted, if not completely cut off. Even when we overcome the obvious effects this has to our life, we are left with other, perhaps longer lasting effects of a prolonged lockdown. 

Physical access to our support network, be it our friends, extended family, colleagues or even people we meet in various settings like the gym or the local shops throughout a typical day is also severely affected. We are called to adapt, to learn how to socialize exclusively via means such as electronic devices. Such a demand, especially when it finds us unprepared and/or inexperienced can be a very long and often painful process. A process we need to undergo, sometimes without ever mastering its intricate details, and one that is not guaranteed to result in a conclusion we will feel happy with. We can be left feeling alone, isolated and unwanted. It is these feelings of isolation, loneliness and the lack of actual physical contact that some of us carry as an unbearable burden. A recent study (Pieh et al 2020a) has found that there was a three-fold increase in the number of people reporting clinically significant levels of anxiety and depression during lockdown. More specifically, this research showed that the mental health of young people, women and those who were unemployed or on low income was affected most significantly. The study, focusing on the first coronavirus lockdown in April 2020, showed that the proportion of people reporting clinically significant depression and anxiety problems in the UK reached 52 per cent, more than three times higher than the pre Covid-19 average of 17 percent.

Beyond the more apparent explanations on what brought these people to a state of depression, there is a different, rather interesting interpretation of such a phenomenon. Allen and Badcock (2003) argue that depression is often used as a self-defence mechanism by which an individual attempts to prevent expulsion from a group they belong to and identify strongly with. Those who suffer from depression often avoid behaviour which could potentially put them to risk of expulsion from the group, typically develop heightened sensitivity to social risk and actively send out distress signals in as part of an effort to attract the attention and support of other members of their social group. When we experience exclusion from a group we feel strongly towards, it is our sense of self-esteem that usually suffers first (Turner et all 1987). Depression can therefore be seen as a highly specialized response to the perceived changes in our social environment (Allen & Badcock, 2003).

Stigmatization is another powerful element in situations like these. Stigmatization generally refers to the exclusion of individuals from social interaction based on their desirability to the group. In a case of a pandemic enforced lockdown stigmatization might come as a result of being exposed to the virus, or holding views and beliefs that are antithetical to the ones held by our peers. Further on, stigmatization does not necessarily need to be an actuality. Even when stigmatization is only perceived, it can be sufficient in bringing upon an individual all the negativity associated with the phenomenon (Kurzban & Leary, 2001).

Relate, a UK based charity recently conducted a poll where 61% of the 2,058 UK adult respondents explained that the lockdown helped them realise the importance of their relationships, while 8% of respondents felt the need to end their relationship. A prolonged lockdown, nevertheless, has the potential to cause adverse effects to family life (Gibson, 2020). Our immediate family become the only people we can feel and touch, and even in this case, we are forced to share restricted physical space with them around the clock. Recent studies (Usher et al 2020; Evans et al, 2020) have shown that since the first lockdown was imposed last year, domestic abuse rates increased. Calls to Refuge, a UK charity, increased as much as 25%, according to one of the charity’s media releases. For many people, a prolonged and strict lockdown is the first time they are faced with increased levels of interaction with people they live with (members of the same household). The normality we are familiar with is replaced by an environment where the nature of our interactions changes from varied to repetitive and often intense. Engaging repeatedly and exclusively with a depleted number of people as well as the changing dynamics of our new social realities often uncover issues otherwise kept dormant. An example of this could be couples realising that they no longer want to live together (Gibson 2020). According to a recent article in the New York post, divorce rates in the US spiked by 34% last year. This is because the increased pressure a prolonged lockdown brings on everyone could affect relationships that might have been experiencing strains but have so far remained intact partly due to the distance work commitments forced on partners (Pieh et al, 2020b). As this distance is suddenly no longer a factor, people are facing the prospect of coexisting for periods far longer than the ones they are used to. This is especially important in families that were already contemplating divorce (Lebow 2020).  

In conclusion, when we find ourselves suddenly cut off from the majority of our social support network our mental health as well as relationships are at risk of suffering. Finding ways to overcome these new challenges is an ongoing race, and an endeavour we must undertake successfully if we are to adapt to the ever changing nature of the realities brought upon us by a world pandemic.

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