[Article] Lessons from Lockdown

It’s not over yet, but the lockdown that has seen millions of people all over the world confined to their homes for weeks on end has been eased in the UK and I’m happy to see that our friends and colleagues in many other countries are gradually regaining the freedom to leave their homes and spend time together.

In the early stages, psychological models relating to change, grief and uncertainty were relevant.  People went through predictable, but no less painful, experiences of shock, denial, emotional outbursts, depression and anxiety as the threat of Covid-19 led to governments around the globe imposing social distancing measures and the ‘stay at home’ directives that we came to know as ‘lockdown’.

It seems impossible to me that anything will return entirely to what we think of as ‘normal’.  We have been changed by this experience, individually, collectively and indelibly.  The nature of these changes, however, is different for each person and for each community, each organisation and each nation.

As I write, emotions are running high in communities, countries and on-line as the world reacts to the news of the death of George Floyd in police custody.  When I stand back from the emotions and view the scenes as a psychologist, I can’t help thinking that the weeks of lockdown are contributing to the depth of feeling about Black Lives Matter.  Those weeks of lockdown have affected everyone.

I live alone.  I’m accustomed to days I spend alone, working in my home office.

I’m not accustomed to whole weeks, months where I am ‘home alone’ and can’t go out.

As I’ve made my way through weeks of enforced isolation and a long list of ‘lockdown projects’ my mind flits between the experience and the analysis of the experience.  In NLP terms, I’m switching between 1st and 3rd positions.  At times I’ve been fascinated by my own – and other people’s – reactions to the situation, and at times I’ve simply been reacting.

So what have I learned?

  1. I’ve learned… that although we have all, in theory, been subjected to the same rules each person has had a different experience of ‘lockdown’.  If you have been at home with your family your experience will have been very different from mine.  Stressful for different reasons, enjoyable for different reasons.  People who are working at home have a different experience from those on furlough, which is different again from the ‘key workers’ who have been going to work as usual but dealing with unusual events. Lockdown means something different to each person.
  2. I’ve learned… that the experience and how we feel about it changes on an almost daily basis. The routine that felt satisfying and productive one day can feel constraining and pointless on another.  For no apparent reason, the whole situation can suddenly feel intolerable.  On another day it feels like a gift – a time to rest and re-think.  All of these reactions are valid.
  3. I’ve learned… that human beings are social animals and it’s not good for us to be isolated. There is a reason why solitary confinement is regarded as the most severe form of punishment.  It’s important we take care of our mental health as well as our physical well-being.  Pretending everything is ok and I’m coping isn’t a good strategy on days when I’m not.
  4. I’ve learned… that hugs are an important and necessary part of life. (I thought I knew that, but I know it in a new way now)
  5. I’ve learned… that the telephone is a wonderful invention and hearing the sound of your loved ones’ voices is precious.
  6. I’ve learned… that video conferencing is a great tool for all kinds of virtual social interaction – in the absence of REAL social interaction.
  7. I’ve learned… that some businesses have reported quicker, more focused and more productive meetings via video conference. Some workers are finding it easier to focus on individual tasks when working from home.  Some companies say that working from home has increased trust – in both directions – between workers and management.
  8. I’ve learned… that you cannot make eye contact on a video conference. That moment in a face-to-face meeting when you catch the eye of a colleague and affirm that your thinking is aligned on this issue?  It’s impossible via video conference.  You are alone.  No-one knows who’s looking at whom and you can’t create a private glance of complicity.
  9. I’ve learned… (the hard way) that days of back-to-back video meetings are even more exhausting than days of back-to-back meetings in person. Experts suggest that the extra concentration required to pick up non-verbal signals and the stress of constantly seeing yourself on screen contribute to this.
  10. I’ve learned… that I’m a reasonably good cook but my repertoire is in need of enhancement. I’m really looking forward to being able to visit a restaurant and enjoy a meal I didn’t have to cook myself. Even more, I’m looking forward to eating meals with friends and family.
  11. I’ve learned… (almost) that when the situation in my ‘locus of concern’ is hard to understand, fraught with uncertainty and full of emotion, my best strategy is to focus on my ‘locus of control’. When the going gets tough, I work on my projects.  I wrote my list of ‘lockdown projects’ in the early weeks, when it became clear that normal life was on hold for the duration.  I considered taking a rest.  The idea of metaphorically putting my feet up and resting for three months had a certain appeal (especially when I was still recovering from what was probably The Virus) but when I thought about the future I realised I wanted to be able to look back on this time and remember it with some fondness or pride in what I had achieved.  I knew I didn’t want to see it as a wasted opportunity.  So I’ve been working on all the ‘one day’ projects.
  12. I’ve relearned… that human beings are adaptable. Already, the ideas of going out to a bar or coffee shop, or inviting your friends over for a party seem almost unthinkable.  The return to some form of normality in terms of going out of the house and interacting with other people may be as disruptive for some as the original lockdown.  But after everything we’ve experienced over the past few months, I think we’re up to the challenge!

What have you learned, or re-learned, during lockdown?  I’d love to hear what insights you’ve been having.

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