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  • Writer's pictureDr. Steven Taylor

The Right Stuff

What are the characteristics of people who cope well under self-isolation? In the past few years this issue has been of great interest in selecting astronauts for long-haul space missions, such as the planned missions to Mars. Research shows that both astronauts and COVID-19 self-isolators tend to cope better with isolation and confinement if they possess the following characteristics:

· Emotional stability, as indicated, for example, by an absence of pre-existing emotional problems.

· Openness to new experiences.

· Optimism that the challenges will be overcome.

· Hardiness. This involves a commitment to a task, where the person focuses on doing things that provide a sense of control, and regards stressors not at threats but as challenges to be overcome.

· Introversion and a low need for social support. Social support is generally beneficial for well-being, but under conditions of isolation, the people with a low need to be around other people tend to cope particularly well.

Not everyone possesses these characteristics, but people can improve their hardiness. Learning new ways of coping can improve your hardiness, thereby making life under lockdown a more tolerable experience. Cognitive-behavior therapy, which is available in online formats, can help people improve their hardiness. The goal is to make lockdown more tolerable. But you shouldn’t like your lockdown too much.

The Problem with Loving your Lockdown

There’s a downside to making your living conditions more tolerable during lockdown. If you create a very pleasant living space, you may be more likely to remain isolated once COVID-19 has passed. Advances in technology have made it increasingly easier for people to withdraw into their homes. There are trends—even before COVID-19—for people to increasingly work from home, to watch movies at home instead of going to the cinema, to shop online instead of going to stores, and to use home delivery food services instead of going to restaurants. Homes have increasingly become cocoons of safety, comfort, and pleasure.

Severe social withdrawal, lasting 6 months or longer, is called hikikomori. It was once regarded as a syndrome limited to Japan but has become increasingly recognized in other countries. People with hikikomori are typically adolescents and young adults, many of whom spend long hours surfing the Internet and playing online games. COVID-19 is likely to increase the prevalence of hikikomori, as shy, introverted, health-anxious people retreat from a coronavirus contaminated outside world to the safety of their rooms or apartments.

A Portrait of a Post-Pandemic World

In a post-pandemic world, people will have experienced all kinds of losses, including the loss of friends and loved ones due to the coronavirus, the loss of jobs, the bankruptcy of businesses, and foreclosures on homes. Marriages and other relationships will have collapsed under the pressures of lockdown and mounting financial hardship. People will be wary about shaking hands or hugging one another, at least in the short term. An estimated 10% of people will develop severe psychological problems, such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or PTSD. These people would likely need help from a mental health professional.

But the news isn’t all bad. The research on resilience tells us that two-thirds of people will be resilient to the stresses of COVID-19. Some of these people will experience renewed purpose and meaning in their lives, through helping others during the pandemic.

There may be other, subtle, after-effects of COVID-19. Just like survivors of the Great Depression in the 1930s, some survivors of COVID-19 may become more frugal and self-sufficient, making sure to have a back-up supply of non-perishable foods and other supplies. Some people may become fastidious germaphobes. Some introverted people may become increasingly socially withdrawn, retreating into the germ-free safety of their homes. The more extraverted among us will be greatly relieved to burst out from lockdown. They will gleefully resume their busy social lives, and some might even sign up for voyages on cruise ships.

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