• Dr Emily Barney

Longing during Lockdown: How our brains are processing change

When we look back and reflect on the stages of emotional processing during lockdown so far we can see that each stage is quite distinct from one another (although it doesn't feel like it when we are in it). The trajectory of this process if we mapped it on a graph, for the majority of us would be up and down, meaning, we can all probably personally relate over the last few months to the metaphor of being on an "emotional roller coaster."

I recently posted about the experience of “longing” during lockdown as a likely common experience for the majority of people right now as we begin to really miss the contact with our family and friends, our roles and leisure activities that we value. Interestingly, I only made this post a few days ago and already it feels like the general emotional stage of the nation has moved on from “longing” to something more like a general feeling of being “fed up” or “impatient”. And this makes absolute sense if we think about it in the context of the other stages we have experienced so far. I will come back to this point a bit further into the blog.

But first, I want to make a very clear point about our amazing brains...

To anyone reading this .. YOU have a beautiful brain that has all the resources it needs to adapt to a sudden life changing event, such as the one we are currently in. Absolutely, it can feel like you are not in good mental health, and maybe for a period of time you aren’t, but you can be reassured that your brain fundamentally has got your best interests at heart and is trying to keep you alive and is working hard to process emotional responses to this change so that you can learn and move yourself forward and on with your life.

During such times of significant change, it is completely normal and helpful to expect ourselves to experience different emotional stages and maybe feel like we are a bit (or a lot) out of control. Stages of emotional processing have been well researched and established in our understanding of the grief process. Come to think of it, there are actually probably many similarities in our emotional stages during lockdown to those we experience during the grief process, as well as some added extra’s! As we are still very much "in the thick of it" we cannot get any real perspective on the stages that are to come, but can be reassured that the bigger picture will be one of learning, adaptability and growth.

So let’s recap the process of adapting to life with Coronavirus so far. Many who are feeling overwhelmed right now will instinctively not want to read on any more, this is natural. Hopefully I can reassure that our brain likes coherent stories, with beginning, middles and ends, as it helps us to make sense of experiences and reflect on them in a meaningful way. With that in mind, I hope you read on.

Many of us may remember experiencing the “shock and disbelief” stage at the start when Coronavirus first came on our radar as something that was going to be affecting us in a big way, some people even may have experienced “denial”. This stage there was a lot of avoidance, confusion and fear in the air. As we began to go into lockdown a common experience was then of “anger.” Anger, it is important to add, is an entirely normal response to a potential threat in the environment, primitively speaking, we have to increase our strength to defend ourselves again the threat. The energy required of anger however is hard to sustain and many of us either gave in to a sadness as the realisation sank in or moved straight on to some sort of “acknowledgement.” As the weeks passed many of us reached “acceptance” that this was our new way of life for a short while and following this acceptance likely a stage of “optimism and positivity” for many where a real sense of flow was achieved. Maybe we felt (or still do) really in “the swing of things,” on fire, achieving goals and being quite active, maybe getting on with those tasks around the house that we always put off, reconnected with our partners or decided to use the time productively to do some extra studying maybe.

Now as time has gone on... and on, maybe some of us are beginning to get really bored of the same routine and really starting to miss everything that is meaningful in our life that we can’t do, and so entering the “longing” stage. For many, this longing comes at a time that we are starting to come slowly out of lockdown. For some of us "longing" may have prompted a strong "impatience" or an intolerable feeling of being "fed-up", which we can see some common behaviours starting to pop up now, for example, relaxing the rules of social distancing, maybe more house parties or larger gatherings. And as we all understandably rush to satisfy our fundamental human needs of interaction, connectivity and touch, i'm just wandering about what then happens to the focus of our attention? Does it get diverted away from what we have all been focusing so hard on trying to achieve these last few months or can we "multitask?"

This is just a question with no particular intention behind it but to wander what the next stage might be. The pace and energy at the moment feels a little urgent that inevitably will settle down, hopefully sooner, rather than later!


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