Stress and Human Adjustment In Time of Social Isolation

COVID 19 in 2020 has brought us to an unprecedented moment that highlights globalization, economic disparity, and the profound impact of the internet.  While we are faced with a pandemic that has the potential to mirror the devastation of the Spanish flu of 1918 the impact has been mitigated by applying a very draconian “Stay at home unless absolutely necessary” message.  It is safe to say that a very large majority of people have heard and chosen to abide by the directive despite the personal, social, emotional, and economic impact.

While research is undoubtedly focused on developing a vaccine to accelerate herd immunity, social scientists are also taking note of situation.  Many questions arise but the general gist of research is likely to address individual differences that contribute to either flourishing or languishing under our current circumstance.  I am reminded of my second year of graduate study when I was given opportunity to teach a course in Human Adjustment.  It was an eye opening experience for me as an instructor not only to appreciate the challenge of developing lectures and assessing learning but also delving into the idea that we as humans are always, to a greater or lesser degree, in a state of flux and faced with uncertainty.

Everyone faces adversity and uncertainty but some seem to have more than their fair share and some seem to deal with it better than others.  Optimism and a sense of personal control are protective factors when it comes to dealing with uncertainty.  The concept of optimism should not be mistaken for a naive, polyanna, “everything is going to be fine” approach to reality.  Rather optimism stems from an important ability to focus on how we can effect change despite how little control we actually have in most situations.  For example, when seeking employment one cannot guarantee a job and is better off focused on getting resume feedback, circulating the resume widely, talking with friends, and networking to increase contacts with potential employers.  Staying focused on how much and how often one chooses to focus on these tasks helps to maintain a sense of accomplishment and forward momentum.

So what does optimism look like in the context of COVID and social distancing?  You may be facing a temporary or permanent job loss.  You may be facing social distancing that has started to morph into painful isolation.  Notice how our worry, uncertainty, and psychological challenges tend categorically toward education, career, finance and health/ relationship.  In short work and people.  Try and take note of the topic of choice for your reverie into wistful nostalgia (if only…) or apprehensive future projection (what if…).  This is an important first step in better understanding the situations, thoughts, and feelings that contribute to your worry/ anxiety and/ or despondency/ despair.

Right now you are preparing to tell me to kindly (or aggressively) keep my optimism to myself – thank you very much.  I struggle to remain silent about it and I have been known to offer abrasive, unsolicited feedback to family, friends, and acquaintances when they externalize their successes and focus on their failures.  “Hey I got a new role at work – they must be really hard up for people to promote.  I will probably screw it up and get fired like I did at my last job…”  Pessimism is insidious and it is resistant to change even when others offer emotional support “I think you will do great” or tangible evidence to the contrary “didn’t everyone get let go at the same time because the company went bankrupt?”

How are you finding ways to be optimistic amidst the major life changes that have resulted from social isolation?  Do you see opportunity to take the time to learn something new – like my son who has periodically picked up the guitar?  Have you taken the time to reach out to contacts you have not connected with in a while – knowing that they may be feeling lonely as well?  Have you had time to read, reflect, sift, sort, organize, and purge?  These exercises apply to all of us in all of our physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and material reality.

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