Positive pandemic?

Jennifer E. Symonds considers whether lockdown can actually improve your mental health and wellbeing.

16 April 2020

The media is flush with negative news stories about how lockdown is creating psychological trauma. The popular narrative focuses on our mental health being harmed by job loss, self-isolating and social distancing. Many writers are giving advice on the types of coping strategies that people should use to mitigate these negative effects. Although these effects are undoubtedly real for many people, this is likely a classic case of the media blowing the impact of lockdown on mental health totally out of proportion.  

The first ten news stories I found using Google Scholar and the search terms “lockdown” and “mental health” (run from Ireland on 14 April at 19:00) focused on how people’s anxiety and depression is skyrocketing because of the stress of being in lockdown. None of these news stories were based on data collected during the current lockdown. Three stories predicted negative outcomes based on a Lancet review of the psychological impacts of quarantine (Brooks et al., 2020). However, this is stretching the evidence because 23 of the 25 studies reviewed in that rapid review were of samples of people quarantined from the general population. The people being studied were not ‘living the new norm’ with millions of people across the planet.  

This negative rhetoric is likely causing as much stress and anxiety as it claims to be observing. To create a balanced and broader discussion, we need to ask: can lockdown have a positive impact on our mental health? Is there something good that can come of being in lockdown, where we are all in the same boat? Could it be that lockdown is creating space for us to reflect on ourselves and our lives in a way that can promote our psychological wellbeing? Furthermore, can we live physically, emotionally and socially healthier lives during lockdown?  

For some people, lockdown might, even in stressful situations, give them the time to explore and coming to terms with their thoughts. This has similarities to meditation and yoga where people often practice non-attachment, by reflecting on the impermanency and malleability of thought. In a Spanish study, participants attending a one-month silent meditation retreat reported increased levels of positive emotions and cooperativeness and decreases in ruminating about other people and being dependent on rewards (Montero-Marin et al., 2016). If lockdown allows us more time to reflect on our thoughts, can we use this opportunity to help us to cope with stress and develop our competences in mindfulness? 

Although there are news stories about the lockdown leading to increased domestic violence and marital conflicts, lockdown can also give couples the chance to re-evaluate and reform their relationship in a positive way. Self-directed relationship therapy is within everyone’s reach, with marriage and relationship education materials available on the internet (Duncan & Rogers, 2019). In a randomized controlled trial of relationships education, where couples were assigned to conditions with different levels of therapist face-to-face time, couples who learned primarily from watching a DVD had equivalent increases in relationship satisfaction and coping skills to those who spent more time with a therapist (Zemp et al., 2017), meaning that motivated people can actively work on their relationships while staying at home. 

A further potential impact of lockdown is more time for consciously developing our purpose in life. Having distance from work or school can help us step back and evaluate the interests, beliefs and values that we craft into our overall sense of meaning (Schippers & Ziegler, 2019). Experts in motivation tell us that our interests can be triggered by everyday events and activities, and that we can build these interests across time (Hidi & Renninger, 2006). During lockdown, we can use our few spare hours to develop new interests, or to gain competence in the interests that matter most to us and align with our beliefs and values. With time, these interests can develop into passions. Finding a passion, something that we desire and are committed to (Moeller et al., 2017) is a possibility for everyone. Living in a way that actualises our passions, also known as building and living our calling (Duffy et al., 2018), can protect us against mental illness and trauma (Duffy & Dik, 2013). It can energise us and give us hope. 

The few optimistic lockdown publications that are not about infection rates, are about the positive changes happening to the environment as a result of people not using motorised vehicles including cars, boats and aeroplanes. With less polluted air in India and cleaner canals in Venice, the positive environmental impact of lockdown is a news story that hardly features compared to the dominant rhetoric about economic doom and mental suffering. The reduction of air pollution is vital, given that longer term exposure to cleaner air reduces people’s chances of respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, neurocognitive diseases, and dying from COVID-19 (Wu et al., 2020). Surely we should be celebrating these visible improvements in the ecosystem and their benefits for our physical and mental wellbeing. 

With restrictions on travel, people are spending more time in their neighbourhoods. For those people who are allowed out for exercise within a limited radius of their homes, community outdoor spaces have never been more important, or in demand. A systematic review of the impact of natural environments on public health found that people’s exposure to green spaces had a moderate effect on improving their physical activity, and a strong effect on enhancing their emotional wellbeing (van den Bosch et al., 2016). Now that people have more time away from communing and office work, this opens up time for getting exercise and exposure to community outdoor spaces, which should have a positive impact on our physical and mental health.  

Another way that the lockdown can improve our wellbeing is by increasing our attention to local communities. People are avoiding larger supermarkets in favour of local suppliers whose shops are smaller and easier to reach. Children, and adults of all ages are visible at all times of the day, making it easier to identify the social and developmental diversities of our communities. In a large nationally representative sample of Australian adults, being more actively engaged in local communities and having closer social ties to local communities, promoted people’s life-satisfaction and mental health (Ding et al., 2015). With our movements restricted to in-person interactions with community members, we can focus on enhancing our sense of community and in turn our wellbeing.  

Clearly many people are suffering emotionally during this pandemic. This article is not meant to devalue or ignore their experiences of being ill, losing loved ones, or being without employment. However, it is important that we present a balanced view of mental health during lockdown. Although the ideas presented in this article might not be a reality for everyone, it is also possible that some people might emerge from lockdown mentally healthier than before, due to a combination of their personal circumstances, luck, and self-directed management of their mental health and wellbeing. 

After lockdown is over, having less time to communicate with family, more distance from local neighbourhoods and communities, a tighter schedule with less flexibility for exercise and fewer hours for reflection, re-exposure to greater levels of pollution, and for some, a return to daily relational conflicts at work, could be key reasons why some people might think back on Covid-19 as being a positive pandemic, as well as a deadly one. Perhaps, adapting back to the ‘new normal’ at the end of the lockdown could be our biggest challenge.    

Jennifer E. Symonds

[email protected]

Associate Professor of Education

School of Education and Geary Institute for Public Policy

University College Dublin, Ireland

Chartered Psychologist, British Psychological Society 


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