Are we entering an awakening?
Some of my clients are feeling upbeat about the next few months. In fact, the Coronavirus crisis has delivered some therapeutic effects. It puts personal problems into perspective so that one feels small and insignificant in the sweep of history. People are feeling more connected to other human beings around the world. It's a reminder that we are, after all, cells in the same collective organism, engaged in the same biological fight. Shared adversity creates bonds and it's the story of our evolutionary past as a communal species.
We're happier when we feel like we belong. In his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016) Sebastian Junger explores this instinct, noting that while depression and suicide tend to rise with a country's affluence, they were virtually unknown among indigenous tribes such as the Native Americans. Decades before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lamented that English settlers were constantly fleeing over to the Indians — Indians almost never did the same.
Other clients have been experiencing anxiety about the lockdown. Social contact can be a lifeline for people suffering from depression and to lose it can feel really unsafe. There are ways to protect yourself: video calls, meditation, exercise, reading, making plans, working on something, getting outside once a day for exercise, eating and sleeping well. People are struggling with practical changes too: working from home, managing children who are supposed to be doing schoolwork, sharing a small space. These pressures may lead to conflict. Then there are money worries.
Those advised to self-isolate for three months face what might feel like an intimidating challenge, especially those living alone. This group includes over-70s, pregnant women and people with health problems, all of whom are already vulnerable to social alienation and mental illness. Anyone experiencing despair and growing anxiety should talk to someone for emotional support. If you don't have friends and family available you can call the Samaritans for free 24 hours a day on 116123 for a confidential chat. Or, if you can afford it, book a phone or online video session with a counsellor who can support you through a deeper therapeutic process.
Anyone with Coronavirus symptoms will have to self-isolate while wondering if they will end up on a ventilator or, worse, not be able to get one should they need it. There is a range of further worries: are we about to see the economy collapse, will we run out of food, is there going to be civil unrest? Plenty of ground for an escalating psychological crisis.
But we have a choice.
We've become accustomed to living with what is, by historical standards, an unusually low tolerance for uncertainty and risk. Too much safety can feel stifling so we might feel alive when we get back the gift our ancestors took for granted: a world in which tomorrow isn't guaranteed. Hence the exuberance among newspaper columnists such as Matthew Paris, 70, who wrote: "a little bit of us almost wants to see the pattern of our lives interrupted, even broken" (The Spectator, 21 March).
If we regard the global population of homo sapiens as a single organism trying to defend itself from an attack, what might we observe about its cells; the individuals that make up the whole? If they seem confused, it's for good reasons. They have been going through an accelerating process of change for the past 10,000 years. Many humans have been living for generations without a personal relationship with their environment and cosmos, instead, putting their emphasis on materialism. High-speed travel and communications have eroded the meaning of place and home. Globalisation means we don't need other people in our communities like we once did so we feel less anchored and committed to them.
Only a few people - scientists and public servants mainly - have much to do in the ensuing biological fight. The rest of us now have to sit with uncertainty, and with ourselves, in our homes. Perhaps we don't think of home as an appropriate place to be confined to any more. Not long ago it was normal to spend months at home over winter at this latitude, without transport, shops or much of anything. Just each other. But as we reflect on the crisis today, perhaps our 'normal' lives will begin to look different.
What about the price we normally pay for not washing hands properly in hospitals? The World Health Organisation says about seven in 100 hospital patients acquire a new infection in developed countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1.7m hospital-associated infections cause or contribute to 99,000 deaths in the US each year. One study found up to 70% of such infections might be prevented if health care workers followed protocols including hand hygiene.
And the price we normally pay for travel? There were 165,100 road casualties reported to the UK police in the year ending June 2018 (Department of Transport). An average of 13,758 a month. Perhaps that will be halved during lockdown. Meanwhile pubs and bars are shut and parties are out so we can expect less injury and death from alcohol. In England, 7.4% of all hospital admissions were related to alcohol in 2018/19 (Public Health England 2019).
There is light and dark in everything. Perhaps Coronavirus will dampen the frenetic quality of modern life long enough for us, individually and collectively, to reflect on what we really want. Stopping is not necessarily a bad thing. A human being living with chronic stress for long enough will have a breakdown eventually. Perhaps we might view this pandemic as akin to a collective breakdown. We will certainly be different when we emerge. We might work from home more. The economy will be slower. The environment will be cleaner. Perhaps we can use this moment to start to remember who we really are. To come back to ourselves and each other in something like an awakening.
There is tentative evidence to suggest this may be more than a theory. Market research group Glocalities was collecting data in China in a global survey on trust and values when the Coronavirus outbreak began, allowing it to capture a shift in attitudes as tens of millions of Chinese were locked down. The survey was conducted online among 2,022 Chinese people between January 23 and March 13. It found an increase in trust in people, etiquette, appreciation and service to others. Perhaps the pandemic will instigate a community spirit in all affected countries. I've already seen this happening in Cornwall, where businesses are responding creatively and people are volunteering to help the NHS. Can you feel it?
Take care — and reach out for support if you need to. Many counsellors offer online and telephone support and are on hand to help you through this challenging time.
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