Pandemic and Lockdown – Healthy and Unhealthy Coping

Coping mechanisms or strategies enable us to respond and adapt to challenging circumstances such as created by the COVID pandemic and consequent lockdown. Generally life crises we face are not as encompassing and severe in their impact as is the case with the pandemic and the lockdown(s) that followed. Such events place our physical and psychological systems under stress; something experienced by individuals to varying degrees. Stressors trigger coping responses which may prove healthy or unhealthy.

Our ability to cope is based on the quantity and quality of our available resources, all-round fitness and degrees of resilience. The strength of these will likely be determined by earlier experiences in life and how those were dealt with — or not dealt with.  We will subsequently have developed coping strategies personal to us. 

As the pandemic and lockdown have starkly illustrated, this is where people’s responses begin to diverge.  Coping strategies are either adaptive (healthy/constructive) or maladaptive (unhealthy/destructive). The fundamental difference is that healthy ones do what is required to resolve  and improve matters while unhealthy ones seek only short-term relief from immediately troubling feelings.  Healthy coping results in successful management and reduction of stress while unhealthy coping exacerbates stress-related harm and underlying problems.

Significant change is a major stressor. Normal assumptions about life and how it works from day to day are uprooted. Experiencing a loss of control, people may feel anxious or depressed. The more sudden and alarming the change, the greater the likelihood of such reactions.  So it has proved; not only with the onset of COVID-19 with its inherent threat to life and livelihoods but also given the main defensive response to the pandemic: the suppression of social activity. 

This helps to explain a widespread increase in unhealthy coping behaviours during lockdown. Among these are: excessive alcohol consumption, increased drug and other substance misuse and the over eating of fatty and sugary foods. Unhealthy responses have also encompassed problem gambling and compulsive behaviours involving gaming, pornography or shopping. Lockdown has provided the ideal conditions for the further development of these problems through the unavailability of healthier stress-reducing outlets and the easy accessibility of such activities online.

Although not exclusively, people who entered lockdown with actively maladaptive behaviours will have been at greater risk of self-harm than those who had previously established healthier behaviours and coping strategies. Some will have developed serious problems as underlying issues will have intensified and been compounded by counterproductive coping strategies. Many people will now need professional help.

Removal to a safe, caring environment that is set up to inhibit access to and indulgence in unhealthy behaviours, may now be essential. This option will afford the necessary time and space not only to help understand the nature of the maladaptive responses but will also provide an opportunity to embrace an holistic approach to improving resilience. With expert support healthier coping behaviours can become ingrained.

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