The Psychology of Corona
The deserted streets, schools, colleges, parks, shopping malls, railway platform and airports offer a very disturbing scene to us all, invoking a plethora of emotions and fill us with fear, anxiety, uncertainties, sadness and a feeling of impending doom. The anxieties and uncertainties created by the Corona pandemic seem to be the mother of all anxieties – this crisis doesn’t just threaten our lifestyles, livelihood and sense of security but also our own existence and that of our loved ones.
During such times people generally start questioning the meaning and purpose of life, the goals that they have set for themselves and look at their relationships differently i.e. in a more tolerant way. Will this changed attitude stay for good or is it a passing phase? It is certain that we can’t return to the world we lived in before Corona crises, but the majority of us will certainly return to our same old habit pattern of denial and sleep walking through life. For the majority of us the Corona episode will be like “the wisdom of the funeral hours.”
The wisdom of funeral hour
Just as we experience a different set of emotions whilst attending a funeral, the Corona crisis is invoking similar emotion but in an exaggerated manner, but when the crisis is over these emotions will be forgotten, and we will return to the busy-ness of everyday life, lapsing back into a state of denial and sleep walking that we were in before the crisis started. It would be like wisdom of the funeral hour when we are forced to think about the deeper issues and ultimate meaning and nature of human life for a brief period.
However, for a small minority of us it will be a wake-up call – waking up to the realities of being a human being who is normally subject to the experiences of separation and loss, uncertainties of life, fear of death all the time, and realizing at an emotional level that we are nothing more than a cosmic triviality in the larger scheme of things. This enhanced awareness will offer an opportunity for growth only if we hold on to it indefinitely.
It’s not that this awareness of the horrors of being a fragile human being was created today in response to the corona crisis – it has always been there deep in our unconscious mind or lurking underneath our conscious mind and is related to the fact of being a human. It’s like Corona has made us look up and see dozens of swords hanging from above and that can drop at any time. They were there even before the Corona crisis. In Indian scriptures the example given about our everyday attitude of indifference and denial is like that of a monkey sitting on a branch that is half broken and relishing a delicious fruit, not realizing the fact that he can fall down anytime.
We shouldn’t let this Corona opportunity go by without benefitting from it. And the way to do that is – holding on to this enhanced, though a scary one, awareness and responding to it in the form of a calm acceptance. This attitude will result in psychological and spiritual growth, but one has to experience this existential anguish first in its full form and penetrate through it, and then one experiences a deep-seated inner peace which is immune to all the existential anxieties. This will also result in death-desensitization i.e. overcoming the fear of death.
All these upheavals are happening in the outer layer of our mind. There is a deeper part of our Being that remains unmoved by the corona crisis and we need to connect with that. The awareness of the dangers is there both in the outer and the inner layers of our mind, but the outer layer is reacting emotionally and the inner one remains non-reacting.
There is a sense of denial in the outer layer because it can’t cope with the disturbing emotions. A connection with deeper layers makes the need for this denial unnecessary because the deeper layer can cope with these emotions.
Carl Gustav Jung a pioneering psychotherapist said that the conscious and the unconscious minds work in tandem to compensate for the excesses of each other. The unconscious mind does the balancing act to compensate for the denials of the conscious mind in times of crisis by exaggerating the reality of the threat.
Someone who has not adequately grasped the potential risks of the current situation or can’t cope with it will have a tendency to minimize them, and they are likely to have horrible dreams and nightmares related to the Corona crisis. The unconscious mind creates such dreams in order to wake them up from their sleep-walking state and make them take appropriate action to protect themselves.
The deepest layers of our psyche are already aware of these dangers – and these are no different from all the potential dangers that come with being a human being, it’s only the superficial layers of our mind that worry about such things.
The psychology of Lockdown and Social Isolation
Previously we were physically free but mentally trapped, now we are physically trapped but mentally free, but do we see it that way? We are now freed from the routine that was tying us down and we were trapped in a web of our own desires, plans, schedules, work commitments, social obligations etc.
Now it’s up to us whether we exercise this freedom and experience psychological and spiritual growth or go into the mental trap again by getting involved into the trivialities of everyday life.
Checking for more information about the crises and listening to the news is a way of coping with one’s anxiety and one shouldn’t stop doing it, unless the anxiety gets overwhelming. I have seen a lot of people giving advice on how to spend time during this lockdown period; such as creating new hobbies, adjusting your wardrobe, sorting out your papers, talking to friends more often, watching television, listening to relaxing music etc. – all these are good and can help us with our anxiety when it gets intolerable. But doing just that will be like surrendering our freedom once again and creating a new mental trap inside our house that will keep our denials going. From a spiritual point of view all these activities are distractions from the main task and rob us of the opportunity to grow psychologically and become a complete human being. Please don’t let this Corona crisis pass by without benefiting from it.
The consciousness that was always looking outwards is now forced to withdraw itself partially and turn inwards. When it turns inwards and we don’t make it busy again – there are only two ways it can respond to the emotions it experiences – either to not accept and react negatively which will multiply the negative emotions and our unhappiness, or to accept it calmly which will neutralize it. If we resent this lockdown and get upset then we are certainly increasing our distress and misery. Or if we distract ourselves into some external activity such as music, television, picking up a new hobby, being on telephone all the time, reading books – we are not making use of the opportunity of reflecting inwards.
A calm acceptance of all the emotions that come with the fear of this virus and dying, the financial losses, the lockdown and social isolation etc will help us go beyond all the anxieties and fears. Both attitudes i.e. resenting these emotions or getting excited about them would be counterproductive. We should allow ourselves to experience all the anxieties that are happening to us but shouldn’t identify with them or respond to them negatively, its best to see these emotions as temporary.
Life after Corona crisis
The way we are living now is going to change considerably after the Corona crisis. Let us see if we can learn new lessons here. It will be helpful if we knew what is new on the horizon and how we should prepare ourselves for it.
In future we will learn new ways of doing things. The medical care will be delivered differently and education will be imparted in totally different ways. There may not be any need to sit in classrooms for the whole duration of college periods. In hospitals patients will take charge of their health and illnesses, and will be equal partners in diagnosing and treating illnesses. Remote functioning will become a permanent fixture in most establishments, and we should quickly embrace it.
People will reflect on whether they need forty different types of soaps and shampoos and twenty different types of cereals. They will reflect on the need for hundreds of different television channels and thousands of radio stations on their devices at home. They will think twice before leaving home whether they need to go out and whether they need to drive to work every day.
The whole world will become one community, people from different nations will learn quickly from each other, nations can’t hide their secrets from the rest of the world. Nations that were spending a very tiny proportion of their GDP are realizing that health should become one of their top priorities. Healthcare will assume its rightful place in many countries where it is not seen as a priority as yet, as reflected by the GDP spent on their healthcare.
Financial wisdom will be looked at differently, consumerism will have to adapt itself to the new realities. People will do their financial planning differently. Human values will be practiced differently, the corporate sector will have to examine the humane elements in their rules and regulations.
We see a sudden burst of altruism now, was it not there before, was it not needed before – perhaps it was a needed at all times, but we were de-sensitised to the needs out there, and now we are getting sensitised to it.
The political opposition parties have stopped fighting with each other and are working together, they should ask why they were not working together before, was it because of their selfishness or the need of the hour. In the same way people will look at their relationships and their difficulties in a different way. A crisis brings people together, but they need to ask do they need a crisis to act wisely, can they not do the right thing without the crisis. People of different nationalities are now being separated physically but perhaps they will come closer electronically. They are recoiling into the lap of their motherland and places of origin. They will question the need to settle elsewhere. Many will reevaluate their life goals and plans in view of the new norms and new realities.
We may start liking the stillness in our physical environment and the solitude that is being forced upon us, and may want to plan our living environments and neighbourhood differently. The world might appear too crowded when the corona crisis is over.
Such crisis offers an opportunity to us to be fully human, we normally live from a limited subset of our true being and potentiality.
Corona has brought people together – there are less communal riots, less crime on the streets, less terrorist attacks, pollution rates have gone down, urban crowding will become less in some developing countries as people are returning to their villages from high density cities, and may want to develop their villages rather than return back to their old jobs, tourism will be done differently etc.
Living fully and with a deep understanding of life means – being aware of the full spectrum of human suffering and shortness of human life all the time, and at the same time having a sense of equanimity all the time. This will connect us to the joyful centre of our Being.
We are human beings but sadly have ended up being human doings, Corona is offering us an opportunity to become a human being again, let us return to our true self where we truly belong.
© Kishore Chandiramani, Consultant Psychiatrist
Emotions Clinic, Education and Training Centre Cic, Staffordshire, England