Occupational psychologist Mari Laari gives useful tips on how to minimize the damage of isolation and how to process something like a pandemic.
We are social animals, and forced isolation is distressing even to a balanced mind. Add the economic and health risks of a severe global crisis, and there’s no predicting how any of us will react.
According to Qvik’s occupational psychologist Mari Laari of Heltti Oy, you should first accept that the emergency is bound to cause reactions and everyone has their own take on it.
“You shouldn’t compare yourself to others”, Laari says.
“When you are deprived of social contacts or can’t meet some other important personal need, it will have an effect on your mind even if you don’t have a history of stress or mental health issues.”
Qvik has increased unofficial videoconferences, and we also have daily coffee breaks on Hangouts and Discord. But dealing with this is going to take a little more than that.
Social distancing puts us in a new situation
Social distancing has a different effect on singles than those staying at home with their spouses or families. But the situation poses its own problems for everyone.
You could experience a variety of symptoms.
A vague feeling that something isn’t quite right.
In preventing and mitigating these symptoms, the most important thing is to give your mind time to recover. Our minds get overloaded with emergency broadcasts and conditions. We need something else to think about every now and then.
“You can’t control your thoughts, but you can consciously steer them onto other paths. The logic is the same as when dealing with a personal crisis: it’s OK to focus on work and hobbies every now and then. And you are allowed to have fun. It lets your mind rest and recuperate from the stress caused by anxious thoughts”, Laari says.
Home alone? Anchor yourself in reality.
We all have different needs. Some of us find social situations stressful and are completely comfortable staying at home alone. Others need physical contact and would prefer to be surrounded by their friends and loved ones, especially in a situation like this.
“Acknowledging your need for social contact and recognizing your symptoms when this need is not met can help in itself”, Laari says.
“The next step would be trying to arrange as much social interaction as possible, such as with video calls.”
When you’re by yourself, you should do everything you can to keep your symptoms in check. It’s all too easy to let symptoms like fear take control.
“Whatever the source of your fear, it can easily swell out of proportion when you are alone”, Laari says.
“If your mind starts playing tricks with you, talking to someone could help and put your thoughts into perspective.”
Laari advises us to think about safe people to call to if things get difficult. And she doesn’t rule out meeting your friends every now and then if you know that your mind has a tendency to wander into dark places when left alone.
“The most important thing is to be in touch with somebody every day. Isolating yourself with your anxieties can put you on a dangerous downward spiral.”
24/7 family time? Oh boy.
Isolating yourself with your family or spouse creates challenges of its own. Even the company of your loved ones can become a burden.
“I’m sure many people are terrified by the idea of having to stay at home with their families 24/7”, Laari says.
“It doesn’t make you a bad parent or partner if you can’t stand being around your family all the time.”
Things will go easier for everyone if the family can agree on a few rules for the emergency. The most important thing is to listen to everyone’s needs and give everyone some space every once in a while.
“For example, one person can have a great need to talk about their thoughts and fears related to the outbreak, and their partner not so much”, says Laari.
“In a two-person household, you need to find a compromise that will not overburden either of you. If your family is larger, you could even split yourselves into little groups according to how much you want to talk about the situation.”
This is also a good time to teach yourself a little mindfulness.
“When you’re spending time with your family, playing board games or something, be present. And when you are working, focus on that. Try to keep the time for processing your thoughts and worries separate.”
Some good advice for everyone
1. Find your own way to unwind on a regular basis. If you don’t give your thoughts the time they need, your anxiety will eventually burst in an uncontrolled manner.
2. Our thoughts wander even during a normal work day. There’s no need to beat yourself up about it. If you have trouble concentrating, you can always whip out the good old TomatoTimer.
3. It’s all right to need special support in an emergency, both at work and at home. Support needs depend on the length and developments of the crisis. At work, you can get support from your manager, team, colleagues and occupational health care.
4. It’s a good idea to schedule a few moments for consciously worrying about the situation every day. That usually keeps the thoughts from constantly popping into your head. You could also put your thoughts away as they occur and process them at “worry time” after your work day. By specifically setting aside time for worrying, you can give yourself permission to focus on work first.
5. There’s no prohibition on going outdoors. Taking a walk in the local woods can clear your mind.
6. Try writing. It’s effect is based on two fundamental reasons: Writing lets you be completely honest with yourself. You can admit that you’re scared or list reasons that make the situation difficult for you. Secondly, putting your thoughts into writing gives them structure. Things have a way of growing in your head until they cloud your mind. Moving them from the abstract plane of your mind onto paper will help you come to grips with them.
7. Talking can have the same effect as writing. Do both, or at least one.
8. Many sports activities have been put on hold. If sports is your way of releasing stress, you should find alternative outlets. You can still go running and exercise at home. Why not organize family workouts?
9. If the issues feel too large to handle, you can try to turn your mind to smaller things. Instead of trying to comprehend the impact of the virus on global politics and the economy, focus on your everyday life and its arrangements.
10. The situation is serious and we have to take it seriously. Listening to and following the authorities’ instructions is important, but remember take care of your own ability to cope.
Illustration: Aija Malmioja