3 Easy Ways to Avoid Completely Losing Your Mind During a Pandemic

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Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

Depending on where you live, you’re potentially looking at a dark and lonely winter of increased cases, depression, loneliness and pants-free conference calls. Unfortunately, mental health has been yet another antagonist of this global pandemic, evident in the rise of almost all mental issues since the beginning. The constant locking down and opening up is probably tiring. Not seeing your friends or family is distressing and trying to not infect them when you do see them is perhaps equally stressful. And not seeing a concrete end in sight is just plain annoying. What is there to do, if anything, to make this whole thing just a little bit less depressing?

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Of course, there’s no catch-all answer. We will likely have to bare a certain drop in well-being during such a global crisis, as has likely been the case throughout history. But one psychological theory does offer us some promising paths to lessen this load of existential dread.

Self-Determination Theory, developed by the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, emerged from decades of motivational research. One of the main themes from this research is a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motives. Intrinsic motivation means that one has initiated an activity for its own sake, because the activity is itself rewarding. Extrinsic motivation refers to activities that one pursues in order to obtain something else. Perhaps you play video games because you find them intrinsically rewarding. And perhaps you go to work despite hating it in order to get money for video games. The latter suggests that you are extrinsically motivated to go to work.

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How do you know when an activity is intrinsically motivating? This theory suggests that such activities are inherently fulfilling when they satisfy at least one of our three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. These needs, if met, lets the individual feel psychologically healthy and achieve personal goals that will allow them to grow and experience life to the fullest. If they aren’t met, however, individuals may exhibit a decrease in mental health and motivation.

Thanks to social distancing, messed-up schedules and terrifying news stores, these three needs have likely been altered since the beginning of the pandemic. The question remains then: What are these basic psychological needs and how can we fulfill them in spite of the current circumstances?

1. Autonomy

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Arguably the most important basic need is autonomy. In the most general sense, autonomy means that one is in agreement with the choices and behaviours that they partake in. More simply, you identify with your actions. Importantly, this is distinct from independence or absolute self-reliance. In fact, Ryan argues that it is impossible to live an existence devoid of external control. But he does argues that we should be able to at least have some say in what controls us.

“Autonomy does not entail being subject to no external influences. There is no possible world that is without external influences. The issue is whether following such influences reflects mere obedience or coercion vs a reflexive valuing of the direction or guidance that these inputs provide. It is in the subjective assent to some inputs and not others”. — Richard Ryan, 1993

And autonomy doesn’t mean that someone is simply being rebellious and going against the status quo. In fact, autonomy is a lot more subtle of a need than you might expect.

Self-Determination Theory distinguishes between reactive and reflective autonomy. Reactive autonomy defines a type of behaviour that is preoccupied with not being controlled and being defiant, even if it is to one’s benefit. Those who are reactive autonomous tend to be disagreeable, especially in the presence of authority figures. Their behaviour, interestingly enough, tends to directly correlate with the demands of authority figures, although this correlation is negative. Reflective autonomy, instead, characterizes behaviour that is uncorrelated with external requests. Those who are reflective tend to think for themselves but understand when external insight is necessary. Reflective autonomy, then, is what we should be looking for.

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Now autonomy is obviously thwarted during a lockdown. We have to wear masks, stay at home and cancel our plans. Ironically, however, many of us will likely have more free time. External deadlines might have been cast aside and commuting has become far more of a rarity. In an exciting twist of fate, the minimization of our everyday external controls has offered many of us the opportunity to freely reflect on what we actually want to be doing.

The practice of mindfulness, above all else, is something that can be picked up by anybody in order to enhance autonomy. At its simplest, to be mindful is to “simply and openly observe current events or engage in ‘bare attention’”. Mindfulness, whether through meditation or journalling, allows one to reflect on their values and behaviour and, in doing so, observe the potential discrepancies between each. In fact, the role of mindfulness has been empirically linked to an individuals increase in reflective autonomy.

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One de-automatizes their mind, liberating themselves from external stressors and asking if these outer controls really reflect who they’d like to be and how they’d like to live. So use the time you’d usually spend commuting to meditate and gain some inner knowledge. You might just find out that your pre-pandemic life wasn’t something you wanted.

2. Competence

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The second psychological need that has likely taken a hit is competence. This need is simply defined as one’s need to feel masterful or capable of performing certain tasks. Perhaps before the pandemic you prized yourself in your ability to wow your boss with great ideas at meetings, something that loses its effect with Zoom lag. Or maybe you were finally getting the recognition that you wanted from your rec-league basketball team. Now, unfortunately, you find yourself alone in your apartment, in the struggle to impress nobody but yourself.

One important booster to competence is that of self-efficacy, an internal locus of control that encourages individuals to believe in their ability to perform and achieve goals. This, interestingly enough, also enhances our autonomy. The more we feel like we can do something, the more likely it is that we take action and do it.

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Evidently, your sense of competence may have previously been reliant on external feedback. Your boss, your teammates, your fellow cult-members. Unfortunately in your pursuit of impressing others you may end up pursuing things that you didn’t necessarily want to do, decreasing your intrinsic motivation for the external reward of appraisal. Time away from others can make you understand that the only person you need to impress is yourself.

How can you impress yourself? Hopefully, after some reflection, you’ve gathered a sense of the values and ideals you wish to reach. For example, maybe you value the experience of other cultures. You can then further make this value concrete, into some sort of goal.

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Maybe learning Italian would be something that further reflects this. That’s still pretty vague however. The next step is to specify that goal into a system that offers feedback. Maybe you hold yourself to the daily habit of learning 15 new Italian words or you install a software program that tracks your progress. By creating mini-goals that build up to the goals the inevitably fulfill your values, you will likely find yourself able to fulfill your need for competence.

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Competence reflects an important component to Self-Determination Theory. This theory views human beings as being innately organismic; meaning that they are active organisms that live for the mastery of challenges and the integration of new experiences. By selecting and carefully pursuing goals that connect with one’s values, one can experience a far more psychologically healthy and rewarding lifestyle than the one that may have previously involved grades, evaluations and deadlines.

Perhaps we should take motivation from Isaac Newton, who helped developed calculus while in lockdown. Be like Newton.

3. Relatedness

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Finally we come to the last of the basic psychological needs: relatedness. This is undoubtedly an area that has been significantly impacted by government lockdowns and social distancing. But what does it mean?

Simply put, relatedness refers to our need to belong to, care for, and connect with others. Even the most hermit-like among us are still, time and time again, reminded of the fact that we are social animals. It’s just a heck of a lot better to know that you’re not going through this whole life thing all on your own.

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And, all of a sudden, lovers have been separated, families have had to postpone their reunions, and even the small daily moments of connection we have come to take for granted are now darkened under the risk of disease. Our sense of belonging has been frayed, limited to drunk phone-calls and pleasant memories of a time where the image of an apple-bobbing contest wouldn’t make you cringe.

Unfortunately, feeling alone can make someone relish in it. The disturbing realization that you actually rely on these people for your sanity might make you want to vomit, dissuading you from answering their calls or texts.

“Loneliness is proposed to break this essential construct and disrupt social integration, leading to increase in isolation. This is a vicious cycle which makes the lonely individual more segregated into his own ‘constricted’ space.”

Perhaps a life of meditation and Duolingo is all that you really need.

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However, if there is one psychological need that you should focus on most, it is the need to belong. Thankfully research has shown that even weekly telephone sessions can reduce anxiety during the pandemic. Even small greetings and exchanges between neighbours, doormen and cashiers have been shown to increase a sense of relatedness. After all, the whole world is finally all dealing with the exact same crappy situation. Small moments of connection are even more meaningful than ever. And start reaching out to those who may have fallen away from you in recent years. Catch up, reminisce.

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And even if you are one of those people who prides themselves in their hatred of people and detachment from general society, it is advised that you at least have some interaction. Like bitter medicine, it might be hard to swallow but it is absolutely necessary for your health.

Conclusion

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Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

In conclusion, not losing one’s mind during a pandemic involves three simple actions that you may or may not have already started doing.

Firstly, regarding autonomy, adopt some sort of mindfulness routine in order to gain further insight into what you actually want to do with your life. Really challenge the assumption that you are truly the master of your fate.

Secondly, regarding competence, set some personally-endorsed goals that give you immediate feedback.

And thirdly, regarding relatedness, please do reach out to people even if it’s painful. Even if it’s the cashier or mailman. Social connectedness is one of the prime variables that maintains mental health during this mess.

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One last word, especially if you are pessimistic about the suggestions in this video. Individuals who suffer from serious illnesses, accidents or traumatic events have been shown to develop something called post-traumatic growth. What this means is that:

“People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life”.

So even if you are going through a hard time, try to remember that easy times make soft people and hard times make strong people. Certainly, this isn’t some message that we should actively seek out tragic situations in order to grow. But, if true, this does give some meaning to this dark moment in history. Perhaps we will come better out of this then we came in.

And hopefully the adversity felt around the world now will be sharpening our minds for the challenges that lay ahead of us.

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