Why Is the Pandemic Such a Strange Experience?

The words I most often hear people use to describe the experience of living through the coronavirus pandemic are ‘weird’ and ‘strange’. They are referring to how everything that was normal is no longer normal. They live on the same, familiar streets but now their neighbours are potential risks who can carry the virus. The food shops are still the same but they have to queue to get in and once inside have to be careful not to get too close to anyone else.The public transport system still uses the same trains and buses but now they are confined spaces which also carry increased risk. The list goes on and on. Not hugging friends and relatives. The amount of times we have to wash our hands. Or remember not to touch our faces. Or confine ourselves to going outside a lot less.

The effect of the familiar becoming unfamiliar is an often overlooked phenomenon. Most people don’t pay it any attention whatsoever. And yet most people are probably feeling its effects in ways that they, equally, do not recognise. Background anxiety is part and parcel of the pandemic and it is directly related to the concept of the familiar becoming unfamiliar. You may well ask, what background anxiety? Well, the anxiety that has people on constant alert about their wellbeing (Did I wash my hands after touching that door handle?). That makes us irritable, angry even, at the smallest thing (Why didn’t that person leave more room when they passed me on the street?). The wakefulness at night. The disorientation at being out of work or unable to meet friends or family. The grumpiness with loved ones. The concern about the future and will it ever be the same? The disarray in some countries which might delay a speedy end to this strange era? Anxiety fixes on anything that is available so this is a also list that can go on and on.

If you needed further proof that anxiety is having effects then look no further than a recent report by psychiatrists in the UK which shows that people with no history of mental illness are developing serious problems for the first time as a result of the lockdown. It said the causes are stress from over isolation, job insecurity, relationship breakdown and bereavement.[1] These are clearly challenging experiences to happen at any time in one’s life. But they are happening in a context which contains both uncertainty and unfamiliarity. The usual supports – relative health safety, having a job, our routines and social activities, freedom of movement, social networks – are not there in the same way. We are left somewhat helpless to fix our situations and it is helplessness which adds the layer of anxiety that undermines our mental wellbeing.

The recent report I just mentioned was conducted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and it found that adults and children are having psychotic episodes, mania and depression, with some hospitalised because of the toll on their mental wellbeing. Men in the 18-25 age group, in particular, have been experiencing first-time mental health issues. The report also warns that the UK’s mental health services could be overwhelmed by “a tsunami of mental illness”.

The coronavirus has forced our world to undergo a seismic shift from a familiar one to an unfamiliar and, frankly, scarier one. Not only are people dying, thus holding out the potential risk of death for anyone who, healthy or not, becomes infected. But there are also constant reports that a return to the familiar normality we once knew is not in any way guaranteed anytime soon. Yes, we will eventually get the hang of running our economies with social distancing and face masks and everything else. We are adaptable creatures and we will adapt. But there is no quick fix for the memory we will always have of how things used to be, how quickly they changed and how society once functioned in a comparatively easier way. In short, unfamiliarity might be with us for some time.

I mention this because the words ‘weird’ and ‘strange’ reminded me of a paper Sigmund Freud wrote, called ‘The Uncanny’, in 1919. At least, that was the year he published it but he was thinking about the idea for a number of years before that. It’s interesting that when he published it in autumn 1919 the Spanish Flu pandemic, one of the most severe pandemics in history, was just ending?[2] In ‘The Uncanny’, Freud is grappling with the very human feeling of anxiety and trying to work through the idea of what makes something cause us anxiety, where we don’t know what to get away from or how to stop the feeling, rather than something which frightens us, where we can get away from or avoid contact with the thing that is causing fear. His conclusion is that the ‘uncanny’ (think of eerie or weird or strange) causes anxiety because it is a case of the familiar becoming unfamiliar. What we know and expect is replaced by something else, something we don’t know and didn’t expect. That fits very well with the coronavirus and its psychological effects. Freud also speaks of anxiety being caused by something that should have remained hidden but has come to light. In the context of coronavirus, the thing that should have remained hidden, in spite of modern civilization’s scientific knowledge and health protections, is how helpless we are in the face of a natural disaster which has rearranged our way of life almost overnight.

Helplessness also has the added characteristic of being the earliest state we all experience after being born. This is why being helpless is probably the most fundamental anxiety-provoking experience we can have, because it underpins all other anxieties. It is akin to having our batteries taken out. We can’t defend ourselves and we can’t find a workable alternative because something has been taken away from us, something most of us rarely experience: our power of agency, or the ability to respond. The pandemic has required us to take action primarily in the form of not taking action; to stay home, avoid contact, stick to the rules. In other words, in the place where our image of ourselves as independent, self-sustaining and driven usually resides, there appears another, very different image of ourselves as helpless and impotent. This is the root of anxiety.

What does all this mean for the current situation? In an obvious sense, it means a change in our lives such as coronavirus has brought about cannot be anything other than anxiety-inducing. It follows that depending on one’s susceptibility to anxiety, any number of effects can take place. It can lead directly to anxiety, or depression, compulsive behaviours, constant worrying, aggressiveness, low libido, obsessive thoughts, even going as far as personality changes or further to temporary psychosis. These will have knock-on effects in terms of our work and personal relationships. Once that begins to happen then, as the report above found, things can take a serious turn.

Although it is a broad generalisation, the people who have best adapted to the current situation are those who have been able to fend off the feeling of being helpless. This can be done through a wide variety of ways: through continued working, through the quality of our close relationships, through our ability to keep ourselves busy by helping others, through self-improvement, creativity and even through home improvements. In other words, anything that allows us maintain a degree of self-worth, optimism, self-belief, and a focus for our thoughts and activities that is located outside of ourselves. You have probably noticed how, despite the horrors and the exhaustion they have had to endure, our front line health workers have managed to maintain a sense of morale and purpose. Other essential services providers who have been able to maintain some modicum of continuity between their old lives and this new reality have also tended to fare better than most, despite the risks to themselves. The least able to cope with the pandemic are those who have been furloughed, who have found no alternative roles at community or voluntary level, who are locked-down in challenging conditions, are in difficult relationships and who may, or may not, have had a pre-existing susceptibility to anxiety.

Our idea of ourselves, what we call our ‘subjectivity’, our sense of the ‘I’ that we represent for ourselves and for others, is something we all carry around with us even without knowing it. An important characteristic of it is that it is a precious commodity. On the one hand, it allows us, in a relatively consistent fashion, to face the variety of situations and experiences that modern life presents. But, on the other hand, it is also a delicate commodity which can be damaged quite easily, as the survey above shows and as you will hear from anyone who has felt the sting of internet trolling or other forms of unwarranted personal criticism.  So the next time you hear the phrase ‘look after your mental wellbeing’, this is what it means. Look after the idea you have of yourself, the sense you have within you of who you believe yourself to be and who you want to continue to be. Not in a self-centred or narcissistic sense but in a reality tested, other-directed, productive sense in terms of ourselves and those around us. Is that sense of yourself robust? Will it come apart when the wrong thing is said or the wrong circumstances arrive? Is it based on clear thinking or on imaginary wished-for elements? Is it able to offer you the ability to work and to love in a way that sees you harnessing your potential in a beneficial way? And, perhaps most importantly, is it able to sustain you when the familiar becomes unfamiliar?

[1] You can read The Guardian article here. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/may/16/uk-lockdown-causing-serious-mental-illness-in-first-time-patients?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

[2] It ended in the summer of 1919, was caused by a virus of bird origin, about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected, and deaths were estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide.