Managing the Coronavirus pressure cooker
In a recent counselling session, Julie spoke about the ongoing impact of coronavirus restrictions on her marriage to John: both working from a two-bedroom flat, spending all day in front of a computer screen, missing the distraction of commuting and the transition between home and work, missing social interaction at work, waiting in the rain in a socially-distanced queue to pick up their child from nursery, trying to stop him touching surfaces when shopping, and feeling reluctant to go to restaurants.
In describing their situation, she expressed feelings of isolation, entrapment, and anxiety about not knowing how long the current way of life will continue.
The feelings expressed by Julie are increasingly common. Individuals do not need to be in a testing relationship or to have pre-existing mental health issues to feel the strain caused by the pandemic.
I recently had a passing conversation with a neighbour called David, a young man in his early thirties who I would describe as easy going. David expressed strong feelings of frustration about not having things in his life to look forward to – not being able to visit his parents, not being able to go to watch sport and not being able to celebrate his baby daughter’s first birthday the way he would want.
During our socially distanced conversation, he expressed the same frustrations as Julie about life being dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and feeling increasingly pressured.
Julie spoke about the lens through which she looked at life becoming smaller. As a result, problems appeared to be magnified. Both she and David expressed a feeling of mounting tension which she compared ‘to being in a pressure cooker’, a feeling which runs through many of the conversations I am having currently with family, friends, colleagues, and clients.
(Note: The examples of individuals cited above draws on fictionalised composites using changed names.)
In March, I wrote an article about protecting your relationship from coronavirus. I think the conclusions are still valid and I plan to revisit them in a future article. Many other therapists have offered similar advice. However, on reflection, I do not think the guidance we have offered has looked at the core reasons why individuals are feeling so unsettled. Thus, I wondered if the advice offered is less effective because it lacks context – a deeper understanding of what is going on.
What is it about people’s experience that is causing a pandemic of anxiety? Why are people, who are normally philosophical and resilient, in such a state of angst? In my recent conversations inside and outside the therapy room, I have become aware of a sense of confusion and the unspoken question, ‘What is happening?’. In this article, I look to philosophy to provide some answers.
Existential therapy identifies three main causes of anxiety which are rooted in human existence. First, we are ‘thrown’ into a physical world which existed before us and in which we have no control over elemental forces and the physical environment. The world contains other givens that we cannot change, such as culture, society, and family of origin.
Second, we are forced to make decisions in the absence of knowing in advance if they are for better or for worse. For some people, this results in big decisions feeling impossible, for example committing to a relationship. For others, every decision is experienced as difficult, making day-to-day life an ongoing struggle.
Third, we must live in the knowledge that our life ends in death. However, the nature and timing of our death are unknown, which results in anxiety. The philosopher Heidegger noted how we recoil from death and distance ourselves from thoughts of it.
Coronavirus has increased all three of these sensitivities or ‘pressure-points’ and brought them to the forefront of our awareness. We are living in a world engulfed by a virus that we cannot control. At a practical level, more and more rules and restrictions are imposed on what we should and cannot do. We experience ourselves as increasingly powerless.
The resonance with existential angst is compounded by conditioning in western society about basic human freedoms. Arguably, the seemingly inexplicable resistance of some people to wearing face masks can be understood more easily in that context.
On a day-to-day basis, we are forced to make decisions that have huge consequences about our health and the health of others close to us. Simple tasks have taken on potentially life-changing significance. How often should we go shopping? Should we risk taking public transport if the shopping bags are heavy and it is raining? Should we visit elderly relatives who feel depressed and isolated? Should we stop seeing friends?
We are bombarded with statistics of mounting death tolls. We witness horrific images of ill patients in hospitals across the world. We cannot help being more aware of our own mortality. It makes us aware of the limitations of our life. It makes us fearful.
Constructing a response
Our instinctive response is to find practical responses and coping mechanisms. Hence, the deluge of articles on ‘saving your relationship’. I admit that I have written one myself. They have some value. But on reflection, I wonder if that value can be realised fully without setting our practical responses in an overarching context.
Living with the paradox and tension of existence
The concept of paradox is a central tenet in existential philosophy – the notion that life is confusing and contradictory, everything in it comprising opposites and counterparts. We cannot have health without illness or sleep without wakefulness. The philosopher Kierkegaard noted how we are caught between opposing forces. Our challenge is to live between polarities. We cannot choose one without experiencing its opposite.
Applying this to the situation that we are in now, means acknowledging that with harmony comes disharmony, with peace comes turmoil. If we do so, we move from feelings that stem from resistance – such as frustration and resentment – to feelings that stem from acceptance such as calm, letting go and relaxation.
This approach is akin to a form of mindfulness, a state in which we can observe anxieties in a detached way as passing clouds. It does not mean that we abdicate responsibility for all aspects of our lives, rather we recognise and accept the positives and the negatives that are beyond our control.
For most of us, the biggest thing beyond our control is our mortality. However, if we can accept the notion of life as finite it gives us the impetus to live it according to our values, to prioritise what is most important to us and make the most of our existence.
Living as relational beings
Our world is a shared world. The poet John Donne said, "No man is an Island", existentialist philosophy sees individuals bound together with the physical world and with the world of others. Our connectedness to the world is two-way and our choices in how we respond to it provoke a counter-response. If we confront the world with anger we will be met by an angry world. Thus, we need to be aware of the choices we make about our attitudes and how we are shaped by the responses they elicit.
Sartre observed that it is via our interaction with others that we get a sense of ourselves. Others see us in a way that we cannot see ourselves and their feedback makes us more self-aware. Much has been written about the mental health risks of isolation and loneliness because of coronavirus. Humans are social beings. We need interaction. Currently, there is an understandable tendency to retreat from the world – ‘to isolate’.
While we have a civil duty to comply with government public health policy, we need to be aware of not going to unnecessary extremes and closing ourselves off. Existentialist notions of inter-connectedness, shared experience and feedback underline the importance of maintaining as much social contact as possible within the prescribed rules.
Living the good life
I reflected earlier on coping with life being finite by living it according to our values and making the most of it. Plato said, "An unexamined life is not worth living". Being aware of our mortality, our foibles, and our guilt may be uncomfortable, but it forces us to think about how we live our lives and what is important to us. This in turn raises the question, how do we live our life well?
An aspect of that question relates to whether living well is about being happy or being good. Socrates followed by Aristotle and Plato came out in favour of a moral life over a pleasurable one. Later philosophers sought a more balanced model. But ultimately there is no one, right way to live life. Imposing one would be a contradiction of individual choice, freedom, and responsibility central to all philosophic thought.
Existential philosophy, however, provides some useful principles, notably that we should learn to think deeply and self-reflectively about the way we live. Being in touch with our values and priorities means we can make wiser choices. It means we are less likely to be deflected by expediency or put disproportionate weight on things that are not important. It is also more likely to lead us to expand our value system to incorporate other values such as love, kindness, tolerance, and loyalty. It leads us to become a better version of ourselves and, importantly in the context of this article, more contented and resilient in the face of external challenges.
My starting point when I first thought about writing this article was a feeling that advice on maintaining individual and relationship well-being in response to coronavirus, was being offered in the absence of a conceptual framework. Drawing on existential philosophy I have tried to provide one.
If there is a conclusion, it is that constructive individual responses will come down to personal choice. I have tried to inform those choices by promoting an awareness of fundamental paradoxes, human inter-connectedness and living the good life. As we wrestle with day-to-day dilemmas, I hope it will help in experiencing a more peaceful way of being.
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