I started this 'blog' … Steve on life … because there were many things I wanted to write about … not out of vanity (I hope) but rather because I feel I can make some kind of contribution to people's lives … even if it ends up being just a small number of people and the contributions are minor.
One of the topics I wanted to write about, I called "Health and life" and it was something I intended to address later on. However, with the current coronavirus pandemic causing chaos around the world, I am left thinking how can I not write about this now.
I've read many articles and comments and seen what I believe is to be a large amount of either misinformation or questionable views at best. Some of this, I may address at a later date. However the biggest priority I have in writing 'Steve on life' is to produce something that may actually help people.
To this end I would like to deal with the mentally challenging situation many find themselves in during the current time when the kind of liberty and social interaction many of us are used to has been swept away and often enforced with rigorous veal by those in authority.
When you're stuck in at home, how do you mentally survive the coronavirus lockdown?
Spare a thought for the older generation
There are many commentators arguing that the current lockdown as enforced in many countries around the world, is causing more damage in terms of the economic impact and resulting affect on people's financial and emotional health than that caused by the virus itself.
I am not going to address this argument in this article for the reason that the lockdown is a reality and, given this simple fact of life, the most important thing for us as individuals is to concentrate on things that we can actually do something about … that is, keeping our minds healthy during this difficult time.
Before I go on though, I would like to ask everyone to spare a thought for many of the older generation who for one reason or another have found themselves housebound and potentially alone for many years … and before anyone had even heard of the coronavirus.
When I was a child, our family would see both sets of grandparents every week … the only exception being when we went on our annual holiday abroad for either two or three weeks. Both my grandfathers died when I was in my teens but both grandmothers survived their spouses and both for more than fifteen years. I would still go visit my grandmothers but those visits would be less frequent than the regular family visits I had enjoyed as a child.
Since my second wife died over seven and a half years ago, I have had several periods of time when I've spent many hours at home and on my own. At the time, I was still fortunate enough to know that I could find things to do and ways of getting out of the house … but there were still days and evenings when I experienced, however slight, that feeling of being trapped with nowhere to go … like life is going on somewhere and I'm missing it all!
I would describe those feelings from the past, more as boredom than loneliness. (After all I still had family and friends and could have picked up the telephone or sent a message.) It was the sort of boredom that had me pacing around from room to room. That has made me think just how hard it must have been for my grandmothers who were at that stage of life where options were becoming more limited and they must have endured extraordinary amounts of time in complete isolation.
So, I'll put this to everyone once again … spare a thought for the older generation – especially those living alone - and try and get in touch more often!
Some key thoughts about mental health
About the same time my wife died, I also lost my job. So I found myself at home on my own and the grief was so strong that I didn't even want to look for another job. I will probably write more about this period at a later date … particularly the many different elements of grief and how they all compound together.
Going through this part of my life and the periods of isolation did force me to think about life and how we get meaning into it. I was lucky in that I had sufficient financial resources to keep me going, although the lack of need or urgency to go out and work can in itself be detrimental if you don't have an alternative focus.
I do not believe there is any cure for loneliness or isolation other than finding ways to connect with other people to end the isolation. If you are alone, address this as a priority.
However, what I want to talk about here is how to deal with the drudgery and boredom that can ensue when you have little to do because you're stuck in the house.
There is lots of advice out there on how to stay sane during this current lockdown. But I do think there is something more that needs to be added … something that I believe is valid for good mental health even beyond the current situation.
The advice I've managed to find online includes things like keeping in touch with people, getting regular exercise, creating routines and tips on things to find to keep you occupied. All of this is valid and useful help. However, it's the last point about the things to keep you occupied that I want to focus on in the rest of this article.
Towards the end of my school years, I was introduced to the subject of psychology and one idea that has stuck in my mind throughout my life is Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which basically defines our motivations in terms of a pyramid of 'needs' with physiological needs such as food, water and shelter at the bottom and progressing up to something called 'self-actualisation' at the top. According to the theory we are motivated to meet our physiological needs before wanting to satisfy any other needs. If you've just walked ten miles in baking heat without anything to drink then you're certainly going to want a glass of water in preference to a good conversation with a friend!
However, Maslow himself admitted that his pyramid wasn't a strict hierarchy and people would partially satisfy needs at different levels rather than deal with all their physiological needs before moving up to the next level.
The idea I would like to develop, which I believe can also provide some insight into the subject of mental health (and is therefore especially relevant at this time) is one based upon two opposing fundamental motivational forces and the need to achieve a balance between them.
The two opposing forces can be simply put as:
- The need for security
- The need for adventure
The need for security (or sameness)
Security is a term which summarises many of the needs identified in the lower levels of Maslow's pyramid. Having enough food, water access to money and knowing we are safe from crime or disease gives us a sense of security. Having family and good friends we can count on in times of need also adds to our sense of security. Even things like self esteem and recognition by others will underpin our feeling of worth to the world and therefore our safety within it.
You could say this is all a result of our Darwinian survival instinct. But I would like to go deeper into some of the psychological aspects of this.
I always remember a friend saying to me that he believed it was good for children to have a regular bedtime as it gave them 'a sense of security'. But why should having to go to bed at a certain time give a child a secure feeling?
I think the answer lies in the word 'routine'. The sameness that is associated with routines implies an absence of surprises and this is associated with an absence of danger. We also need an amount of sameness in order to learn and grow. A neurologist will tell you that the connections in the brain are strengthened by the repeated 'firing' of the same synaptic endings. A memory expert will tell you that you learn though association and repetition. We could not exist and develop if our universe had no sense of order.
So yes, I do remember getting that kind of warm feeling in my mind when as a child I was safely tucked up in bed.
The need for adventure (or change)
The word adventure may conjure up images of climbing mountains, jumping out of aeroplanes or trekking through the jungle on some sort of safari. It may also be difficult to spot anything to do with adventure in Maslow's pyramid. However, I use the word in a much more general sense.
Adventure, or the feeling that something unexpected and pleasantly different might happen is a basic need we all have. It may be why we look forward to meeting up with our friends … down the pub, over dinner or even at work. They may recount some story of something that happened to them or someone else that you mutually know. So even something as trivial as day to day gossip is satisfying our need for adventure … for something new … for change.
Therefore friendship, which is about halfway up Maslow's hierarchy satisfies a need for adventure or change as well as providing security. We can also see how we satisfy our need for change at other levels of the pyramid. Take food for example … you could happily survive on just a small range of items that provide the necessary vitamins, fibre and carbohydrates, but think how much you like to sample different foods or go to a different restaurant. Again, it's all change. All, much needed adventure.
An evolutionist would tell you that species that had no sense of adventure would be unable to adapt to an ever changing environment with new threats and would inevitably die out. At a neurological level, the brain reacts to change. If all the inputs to the brain were to be constant then it would likely become useless. We 'freeze' at the sense of danger, like a rabbit in car headlights, as evolution has taught us that the predator (historically another animal rather than motor car) will fail to notice us if we remain stationary. We tend to notice things that move or change.
At a psychological level, if our universe does not change then where is the sense of time or even of purpose. I would encourage you to look up "White torture" on Wikipedia to read about the effects of prolonged sensory deprivation.
The difficult balancing act
So, I would argue that we have two opposing needs. I call them security and adventure but you could equally call them sameness and change. We need them both but they are in direct opposition to one another. We are therefore walking a kind of psychological tightrope where, if we lean too far one way or the other, we risk plummeting into a crevasse of unknown mental consequences.
The coronavirus lockdown has certainly tipped the balance for many. Like a sudden strong wind blowing the tightrope walker away from the side of adventure and about to fall into a ravine of security.
So what do we need to do to survive this sustained gale?
Surviving the lockdown
Clearly, we need something that gives us back a sense of change or adventure and takes away the inevitable routines that will come to occupy our days.
This will be different for each of us but just doing odd jobs around the home may provide enough variety in the short term but in my experience doesn't satisfy the spirit of adventure unless those jobs are part of some longer term plan such as necessary steps towards a new goal.
What I have found is that any kind of 'large project' that has the ability to change your life in new and pleasantly unexpected ways is certainly something that can provide the necessary feelings of adventure and satisfy the change need.
What do I mean by large project? And what type of projects can you do from home? And how might they change your life?
A project can be said to be a collection of tasks leading to a common goal. There is usually some kind of order to the tasks that have to be carried out. Importantly the tasks are not the same, so doing the same daily chore such as washing the dishes isn't what you would call a project. However, building a summer house in the garden or learning to speak a new language would constitute projects.
Last year I moved to Thailand and to keep me occupied during the days I set about building a new website. I already had some of the necessary skills but knew I would have to learn more skills as part of the project. Each of these new skills is a new challenge in itself, so no day sat at my computer is ever really the same. If the website is successful as a business venture then it certainly has the potential to bring pleasant changes to my life in other ways. If it doesn't succeed, then at least I've added to my skill base which in turn can open more opportunities.
Anyone is capable of learning new skills and there is sufficient information online to help you learn just about anything you want. And acquiring new skills can lead to meeting new people, gaining new sources of income and changing your life in ways you can never foresee. If you did go down this route then do be prepared to put in a significant amount of time. (There are videos on YouTube advertising a new skill to be acquired in an hour or so but anything worthwhile is going to take hundreds or thousands of hours … but this is time you do have.)
Even when the lockdown is over, having some form of project or goal to keep working on is bound to be good for your mental health. I would encourage everyone to start something now if they haven't already.
And who knows, perhaps in a few years' time you'll look back and say "thanks to the lockdown, I ....."