How the magnifying glass of lockdown plays havoc with our minds

A psychologist’s insights into the pandemic

I have a small psychology practice in the northern suburbs of Sydney, so I don’t think my experience can be considered representative of what has happened across the whole community over the many months of the COVID pandemic. But here are my reflections on what the pandemic and, in particular, what lockdown has been like for me.

This is against the background of figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare that from April 2019 to April 2020 there was a 17.8 per cent increase in mental health services given, and from April 2020 to April 2021 it increased another 18 per cent. To my mind, those numbers are about right – two significant steps up across two significant periods in our history.

From my experience, both as a clinical psychologist and as a church member serving Jesus, four mental health features stand out from this time.

Firstly, there has been the loneliness of isolation for SO many – the elderly, the single, the widowed, the divorced. If you live on your own, these lockdown months have been extremely hard, and we have all been reminded just what social creatures we really are. We need each other! We need community and friendship, chats and laughs, cuddles and hugs. It doesn’t take social psychology research to demonstrate in a lab that we thrive on belonging and find happiness “in between” (Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, 2006).

I’ve seen some lovely initiatives from our church to connect up the isolated and reach out to our neighbours …

It’s a very Jesus concept to love your neighbour. I’ve seen some lovely initiatives from our church to connect up the isolated and reach out to our neighbours – walking pairs, phone call rosters, letters and treats in letterboxes, care packs, meals delivered – and some wonderful creativity and resourcefulness from among single people – posting craft packs to grandchildren, phoning through my phonebook, Zoom dinner parties, baking for my neighbour, online board games and escape rooms, learning a new craft.

I am reminded that loneliness is actually a state of mind, and I have been inspired by several single people I know, who refuse to dwell on their isolation but determinedly invest in others. Frankly, they’re amazing; mostly products of a previous generation.

My second observation is that during lockdown all our relationships have felt more intense. For those of us in multi-person families, we have seen a whole lot more of each other, which means our communication skills have had to be refined! We have had to learn a bit more about “asking for what I want”, rather than resenting the TV choices that my housemates are making. We’ve come to appreciate a broader range of viewing or accept the reality that I can choose to retreat to my bedroom to read my book if I just can’t watch this. Even though my adult children have no sympathy for my games night ideas, we have enjoyed many nights around the fire pit, with some unexpectedly mellow conversation. Now, that’s a blessing for a mum!

I have been helped by my husband’s self-discipline of walking the dog every day at 7.30am because now, I too am slowly learning that excellent habit. As a couple, I think we have evolved our conflict resolution in some better directions. I notice us asking more gentle questions of each other when it is time to recover, or maybe making “observations” of our interactions rather than questions. For example, saying, “This is what I’ve been noticing happening between us. What have you been noticing?” This sounds less blaming and softer. I am grateful for God’s leading in these interactions.

Our friendships too have been under the magnifying glass of public health orders. I have absolutely abreacted to two episodes of criticism from friends about our interpretation of what is “allowed”, which is tricky territory! They didn’t think my elderly mother was frail enough to warrant a “compassionate” visit from me. Their comments felt like unnecessary and unwarranted interference, stirring a deep reaction within me, which has necessitated some careful recovery in the friendships and that never-easy forgiveness path. This has been more good territory for Jesus, as he reveals my hubris and rebelliousness, inviting me into his transforming space.

Doing Pilates in an individual Zoom session each week has opened up gospel conversations.

A third dimension of lockdown has been a sense of “losing myself”, which a number of people have described to me. Being at home in trackies for many months, not socialising, not travelling, juggling homeschooling and work, gaining weight, not churching;  losing confidence in my normal self; losing the familiar rhythms of my life. For some people, this has been quite disorienting, even disturbing, as unfamiliar elements of anxiety and depression have crept in and will take some careful reconstruction in the months to come.

And fourthly, we have had to rearrange our thinking to see how our Plan B is actually God’s Plan A, and that equals a very healthy faith stretch!

Our son’s wedding in August was cancelled and replaced by an intimate 11-person ceremony in September. Yes, there were disappointed bridesmaids and dismayed grandparents, but for this mother-of-the-groom, it was perfect! I delighted in writing a prayer for the moment, in filling the church with flowers and in delivering COVID-friendly celebration bags – none of which were in the original plan!

A home-delivered COVID-friendly wedding celebration box

A home-delivered COVID-friendly wedding celebration box

Doing Pilates in an individual Zoom session each week has opened up gospel conversations with my physiotherapist that wouldn’t have happened in our normal class.

Deciding not to go to beach mission last summer has given our team some space to refresh and regroup – something we didn’t know we needed until it was given to us.

Working by Zoom has opened up new possibilities for regional and international work – who would have thought?

The verse I have kept coming back to during lockdown is Habakkuk 1:5: “Look at the nations and watch – and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.” God still has this extraordinary capacity to surprise us!