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Why you might feel uncomfortable or strange seeing large crowds on TV and in films at the moment

How have social distancing measures infiltrated our mindset?

WATCHING TV SHOWS or films these days can seem like taking a step back in time, where there is no social distancing and people hug or shake hands without a second thought. 

It can be jarring, and even oddly uncomfortable, to see this on TV and in films when the importance of social distancing has been drilled into the public by health officials and the government. 

Staying two metres apart, avoiding close contact with others and steering clear of any crowded places has become the reality for most people in recent months. 

Dr Jenny Roth, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Limerick, said the fact that these measures are so new but have been emphasised so thoroughly could explain this sense of unease that happens involuntarily.

“It’s just so salient right now that this is the first thing they think of. Their minds are so busy with social distancing that this is the first thing that comes up from a social cognitive perspective,” Roth said. 

She explained that this is something of a vicious circle: because these new social cues are so recent and different from what most people are used to, they are brought up in the mind more frequently. 

“The cues are accessible from memory and the more often we think about these things, the more often they will be reactivated,” she said. 

Therefore, the importance of staying apart from others might immediately spring to mind when watching a film or TV show showing groups of people gathered together. 

Other impacts on our thinking

These cues can also tie in with some accounts of public and private shaming of people who may not be fully complying with social distancing measures.

“There is a new norm established to keep social distancing because it is important for everybody. People want to feel solidarity and social distancing is an important part of that,” Roth said.  

“With a virus, people feel a personal threat and not a collective threat and they feel personally threatened because it can affect their families and health… So that is why they may judge others who deviate from these norms.”  

She said it would be hard to predict whether these changes in thinking will have lasting impacts on the way people view large crowds, handshakes and other aspects of life changed by social distancing measures during this pandemic. 

“Usually the mind is flexible, so if it was pushed before the social distancing became something people adhered to, this could change when the virus is less of a threat,” Roth said. 

“But since we don’t know how this virus will develop, there is uncertainty and probably the threat of this uncertainty will probably keep these distances for a while.” 

“Only when people are more sure of the threat will they get past it in their heads.”

A paper published on 15 April in The Lancet Psychiatry highlighted the need to deal with the harmful impacts of Covid-19 on mental health and, potentially, the brain. It called for research on these areas to be a central part of the global response to the pandemic. 

This paper warned that the Covid-19 pandemic could have a “profound” and “pervasive impact” on the mental health of people worldwide both now and in the future. 

It called for widespread mental health monitoring, along with better ways to protect against and treat mental health problems through new funding and better coordination.  

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