Lockdown, Isolation & Coping

It’s 1949 and sixty-year-old Edith Bone is working as a freelance journalist in Budapest when she’s picked up by the Hungarian secret police and spirited away to a faceless building somewhere in the city. She’s accused of spying for the British and interrogated for hours. But Edith is a formidable individual and insists that she has nothing to do with any government and is certainly no spy. She becomes frustrated with the incompetence of her interrogators as they gradually realise that they’re fighting a battle they cannot win. Without a trial and having never been given a prisoner identification number, Edith Bone spends the next seven years in solitary confinement.

Placed in a similar situation, many people would see their psychological health rapidly decline or admit to crimes they never committed, even in conditions that are vastly better than the dirt and squalor Bone is forced to endure. Yet when Edith is finally released by a student group who have taken control of the prison during the final days of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, her mind is in a much better state than her arthritic body.

What was her secret to surviving seven years in solitary confinement with no one to speak with and often kept in the dark? As Bone writes in her memoir, Seven Years Solitary, ‘In the dark there is little one can do except think, and the absence of anything to divert one’s thoughts gives them an intensity seldom experienced in normal conditions.’ (Page 103). At first, Bone whiled away the hours reciting poetry, then translating it from one language to another.

Later, she writes that she took inspiration from a character in a Tolstoy story, a man also kept in solitary confinement, who would take imaginary walks in the cities he had known. And so it was that Edith Bone visited all the cities she had lived in or just stayed for a while; London, Paris, Rome, Florence and others. They were cities frozen in time, memories of before many of them had been ravaged by war. She would visit friends, some of them long dead, for tea and wander the streets in her mind. Then she began her imaginary journey home to England. From her prison cell, she would walk a little way each day, noting where she had reached before continuing her journey later. She passed the Hungarian frontier, spent a day in Venice, and climbed mountains in Switzerland. When she reached Paris she stopped, for even in her imagination she knew that she could not swim the channel in winter. She made the journey four times by two different routes.

For Bone, the purpose of her imaginings was to remain sane in an environment that could have potentially destroyed her psychologically. In this respect, her daydreams bestowed on her a survival advantage, allowing her to escape from the horrendous environment into which she had been placed. We have no idea how vivid these images were, but we can assume that Bone was capable of seeing her route within her mind’s eye rather than her travels being a kind of internal monologue.

Lockdown

It’s late March 2020, the Covid-19 virus is sweeping the world. The United Kingdom, like many other countries, is in lockdown and the population have been instructed to remain in their homes for at least three weeks, only leaving to shop for essential items, exercise once a day or collect medicine. The future is uncertain and this uncertainty has left the supermarket shelves bereft of the essentials, everything from toilet paper to pasta.

We’re unsure of how whole populations will react now that they are confined to their homes, or how different environments are going impact on their levels of resilience and wellbeing. Personality and environment interact to produce different outcomes; whether you’re an extravert or more at peace with your own company, whether you live in a spacious house or a pokey apartment, your general health and so on.

ICE Environments

We can learn from Edith, whose isolation was far more extreme than most people now have to endure, and envelop ourselves in imagination; television and books, writing our own novel or simply daydreaming. But we can also learn from the research that has investigated how people cope in extreme and unusual environments, from time on the International Space Station to Antarctic expeditions. Researchers refer to these conditions as ICE (Isolated, Confined, Extreme).

People in ICE conditions have to adapt to extreme stressors. Stress is the way the body responds to change, so it’s safe to say that most of us are now experiencing higher levels of stress than we normally do. Stress can lead to changes in behaviour and biology (the so-called stress response) but also changes the way we think (our cognitions). I’ve written extensively about how students cope with changing environments and daily demands and why some flourish while others flounder.

Psychologists Nathan Smith and Emma Barrett are interested in the more extreme end of the spectrum — the Antarctic explorers, astronauts and submarine commanders, yet the strategies used by such individuals aren’t unlike those employed by successful students. They can also be employed by all of us now, as we experience a world that is becoming increasingly uncertain, and many of us find ourselves confined to our homes.

Smith and Barrett describe the problems and potential solutions in terms of several key areas: adaptation, threat, danger and uncertainty, monotony and boredom, low mood and motivation, and both isolation and proximity to others.

Adaptation

Our way of life has been extensively disrupted and we need to get used to a new way of life (at least in the short term). This is not going to be easy for any of us and recognising this fact is an important factor in how we adapt. This adjustment takes time (up to ten days) and knowing this can provide us with some comfort. The stress and anxiety, the general mental drift we may find ourselves in will pass and it’s comforting to look ahead to a time when things will improve and our new lifestyle will become the new ‘normal’.

We can help ourselves adapt by establishing routines and, consequently, taking control of situations we feel we might have little control over. Divide up your day, eat meals at set times, decide what you need or want to get done and allot a time. Get up at the same time each day, establish a strict bedtime routine (this is even more important if you have children in isolation with you).

Monotony and Boredom

Routine is good, but constant repetition can get boring (even our favourite television shows lose their lustre eventually). Social media can be both a godsend and a curse and over-exposure to the 24 news cycle can do more harm than good at times. Therefore, variety is important. This might be a good time to take up a new hobby; learn to paint, take that old guitar out of the attic and learn a few tunes. Shackleton and his crew on the 1908 Antarctic expedition took a gramophone, played card games and read books to each other; modern day adventurers also read books, listen to music or cook food.

Exercise is another useful strategy. Here in the UK we’re currently able to leave our homes once a day to exercise, but there are many ways we can build exercise into our routine. Not only will this keep us active, it has also been found to help with depression and raise our levels of wellbeing.

Like Edith Bone, we can shift our focus from the external to internal through self-talk, visualisation and mindfulness. This allows us to create a sense of personal control when we doubt our ability to control the wider environment.

Low mood and motivation

The first thing is to accept that low mood and lack of motivation are an inevitable consequence of isolation. Our mood ebbs and flows naturally, so it’s hardly surprising that the same will happen when we’re isolated or locked down. This might well be more pronounced because of low self-efficacy, or doubting our own ability to cope in challenging circumstances. We can raise our levels of self-efficacy by focussing on our small achievements and celebrating little wins. Share your successes on social media; if you’ve baked your first cake or painted your first picture, send a photograph to your friends or followers.

Try to find a sense of purpose. There are many free online courses where you can learn a new skill or gain new knowledge. Activities like these represent goal-directed pursuits and goals can be powerful motivators (if you want to learn more about goals I’ve written a short eBook).

I’ve written about journaling before and journaling is one thing that many people in ICE environments do. Journals help us to process experiences and maintain a sense of order.

Isolation and proximity to others

Lockdowns result in us being separated from many while at the same time having to live in very close proximity to some. The latter creates a potentially explosive environment. Being tolerant to others is important, as is ensuring we are tolerable — we will most likely become just as annoying to others as they are to us. One way to deal with this is to identify an area of personal space, somewhere we can retreat to in times of frustration.

It’s also important that we agree on group norms, that is, what is and is not acceptable and how conflicts can be resolved. Expedition teams often insist on honesty and openness; if a team member is being particularly irritating, there is a discussion about why this is the case and how it can be resolved before it leads to further tension.

It’s also important to keep in touch with other people as much as possible. Thankfully, we live in a connected world where social media, email and Smartphones bring people more closer together than ever before.

Difficult times

These are difficult times for everyone, and we are all being forced to alter our lives very quickly. These changes are necessary if we are to protect the most vulnerable and prevent our health systems from becoming overwhelmed. Nevertheless, change is never easy and hopefully we shall never again see another crisis in our lifetimes like the one we face today. I hope the advice here will make life a little more bearable.

Stay safe.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Marc Smith

Marc Smith

Chartered Psychologist. Behaviour Change. Becoming Buoyant — out now https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0367441624