Blog / / The crisis can also be a chance for a fresh start
The crisis can also be a chance for a fresh start
Prof. Dr. Tamara Džamonja Ignjatović Department of Psychology, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, and Department of Social Policy and Social Work, Faculty of Political Science, University of Belgrade
The crisis can also be a chance for a fresh start
Isolation and fear are multiconnected in the current COVID-19 situation. The development of fear is affected by the pandemic that causes isolation, and isolation in turn contributes to the increase of fear and tension. It certainly poses a risk to people's mental health, but it does not necessarily lead to depression. Above all, it is important to emphasize that anxiety, concerns, discomfort, tension are normal reactions in abnormal circumstances. Such unpleasant mental states, which many people are experiencing now, should not be immediately ‘pathologized’.

Restlessness, i.e. anxiety, is a normal response to a situation in which our important life supports and primarily health and social support are potentially at risk. On the other hand, the expanding pandemic produces a lot of uncertainties: what will happen to the world in general, how long it will last, who will be affected, how it will end, whereby we have little control over it.

One of the basic ways to establish some kind of control is (self)isolation. However, such isolation involving physical distancing should be distinguished from social isolation, which can be prevented owing to state-of-the-art communication technology. Unfortunately, these online communication tools are not equally available to everyone. However, physical isolation, restricted movement, staying in a confined, often cramped space, represents a serious frustration, bringing tension, irritability, especially when some isolation measures are experienced as unjustified.

When it comes to depression itself, it should be pointed out that it is loneliness, above all, which leads to depression, rather than physical isolation. When you have no one to talk to, no one calls you on the phone to ask how you are getting on, it leads to depression, which can be further aggravated also by such physical isolation. When many forms of ‘online’ communication are available, it is still just a physical distance, although hardly bearable, for a large number of people because all you need in stressful situations is physical contact, touch, hug, getting together.

Depression can be recognized not only by low mood, and by indolence, lack of energy, passivation, loss of interest, tendency to isolation, pessimistic thoughts, but also by a number of somatic symptoms - fatigue, loss of appetite, sleep disorders. It is difficult to fight depression when it has already developed, because the symptoms unable you to do what is most appropriate. Depressed people avoid company, which is precisely what would be helpful, lack the willpower to do anything while physical activity would be useful to restore energy, have no interest in things that would help direct their thoughts to something else. Thinking that everything is meaningless results in the lack of motivation to seek help. We can hardly help ourselves in such situations, and professional help is necessary.

What is important is to prevent the development of depression and take responsibility for our own protection and the protection of others, as it increases the level of control over the situation and reduces the risk to health, as opposed to sinking into a sense of helplessness. Moderate physical activity is also important, as much as possible in this situation. Walking in the sun and fresh air, outdoors, would be beneficial in terms of not only mental health but also physical health and boosting the general immunity. Structuring the time, planning a variety of activities is what is always recommendable. Depending on personal preferences, it is good to do whatever you love - reading, watching movies, cooking, housekeeping, enjoying hobbies. Still, you do not even have to be constantly active – it is okay to be bored with something. Sometimes boredom is a challenge for creativity.

Maintaining social contacts, especially direct communication with people in the household, conversations with beloved ones, even over the phone, exchanging feelings, concerns, support, attitudes, ideas diminish the experience of isolation. There are also social networks that help you feel that you belong to a wider community, within which people exchange common experiences, fight against negative emotions by humor, share and cite renowned persons, which are all useful ways to review a problem from another perspective, ‘reframe’ the situation. However, excessive use of social networks can also grow into a specific frustration especially when you are constantly receiving messages on Facebook, Twitter, Viber, and E-mail. One of the things to keep in mind is that this situation is temporary and will pass.

(Self) isolation, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, is more easily tolerated if we do it for our own sake and the wellbeing of others, if perceived as something purposeful. It is also important to normalize and accept our own various negative feelings that we are experiencing, without self-reproach for not always being full of strength and optimism. Social distancing can deepen the of feeling of loneliness in people who are vulnerable to depression, and when there are no people around, you can easily give in to pessimistic thoughts, and the circle closes easily - isolation in lonely people leads to depression and depression leads to isolation. In addition to the need for social contacts, especially with beloved ones, the need to control and direct our own behavior and thus influence the events around us is also one of the basic human needs. If events get out of control, or whatever we are trying to do has no effect, then the experience of helplessness develops leading to depression.

Anxiety has a useful function of triggering a self-protective behavior. Nevertheless, excessive fear leads to irrational behavior, which is counterproductive. That is why it is important that we have accurate information and receive adequate behavioral guidance in crisis situations. If we do not trust information and recommended measures, then we behave impulsively and put ourselves in a situation of increased risk or stockpiling, thus contributing to creating of stock-out problems.

It is imperative that the state initially provides additional supplies and restricts the purchase of goods in demand to prevent shortages of food, medicines, protective and hygiene products, which we experience as an additional threat. Excessive, unjustified prohibitions may induce resistance also with people who would otherwise responsibly follow reasonable restrictions. With all the precautions taken, walking in the fresh air can be beneficial to the immunity itself. Physical movement is important both for physical and mental health, especially for fellow citizens older than 65 years of age who are neither incompetent nor irresponsible. If such experience is unjustifiably imposed on them, it will create a precondition for developing depression or feeling of anger when facing their own image of an ‘imposed’ age. In any case, negative emotions can contribute to the deterioration of a health condition.

Self-isolation in itself does not have to cause long-term health effects for most people. It is a temporary measure with a purpose. Although not easy and simple, it can be tolerated for a certain period of time. Undesirable effects can be experienced by vulnerable, emotionally unstable persons prone to worries and fears, followed by the elderly and lonely people. Undesirable effects can also occur in those people who live with their spouses, but in dysfunctional families in which intolerance, tension, conflict, and even violence are heightened now, when confined in a limited space. However, the effects may be related to what lies ahead. Economic and forecasts for social security are not encouraging at a global level. It can impose serious existential threats affecting many people, starting with losing their jobs and further on. Endangering the basic needs as a result of economic collapse and unemployment can produce far more severe and lasting effects on individuals and entire families. Therefore, it is important that the state provides accurate, reliable information, even when it is not encouraging. Fake news or hidden information finding its way to the public only additionally intensify distrust and fear. Likewise, providing helpful tips and reasonable restrictions, without intimidation, in a serious and responsible way, without contradictions and unnecessary emotional outbursts, instills confidence and reduces confusion and anxiety. If you address someone as an irresponsible child, you deny his/her competence to understand the situation and behave in a purposeful manner, causing resistance and even disobedience at one’s own expense. If you appeal to people as reasonable, responsible human beings and behave in such a way, showing appreciation and respect, in return, you also get such a feedback. In that case, a person has got to do what a person has got to do, and is easier to get by if you know that it is really purposeful and important. It is also useful to organize free-of-charge psychological assistance available on different telephone lines. Many people have self-organized themselves now, so the Association of Psychotherapists of Serbia has already been providing volunteer support to persons who address it, and male and female psychologists working at universities have become involved in organizing psychological support and assistance to student. Finally, persons can help with their responsible behavior to themselves and others who are in a more difficult position. In addition to helping others, altruism and solidarity that occur spontaneously in crisis situations also provide feedback assistance to those rendering such support so as to feel better and more useful.

There is some soul of goodness in evil things, so it is important now to get the best we can out of this situation, exert our best potentials, as well as learn some lessons. It applies also to humanity as a whole, related to responsible behavior towards nature and the community, as well as promoting important and neglected life values that are certainly not reducible to productivity and accumulation of material goods. It is a challenge for people to stop and face ourselves in self-isolation, learn to be a good company to ourselves, review our lives when we are not burdened with obligations and duties, re-examine what really matters to us, what and who is missing in our life, learn new things and do what we love, and what we usually postpone. The crisis can also be a chance for a fresh start, an incentive for growth and development.
Prof. Dr. Tamara Džamonja Ignjatović
Department of Psychology, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, and Department of Social Policy and Social Work, Faculty of Political Science, University of Belgrade