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Dublin: 7°C Tuesday 27 October 2020

'We can find meaning in this isolation'. Professor Ciaran O’Boyle says supporting each other is the key to getting through this

Professor O’Boyle says we should embrace all means of communication to stay connected.

Professor Ciaran O’Boyle

FOR MANY OF us across Ireland, Easter looked very different this year. We didn’t get to attend church services; no family or neighbourhood Easter egg hunts took place. There were no large Sunday gatherings of extended families or groups of friends.

However, Easter still took place and many celebrated it via broadcast and social media. The egg hunts took place in back gardens or, virtually, online. Following several weeks of restrictions, and devastating sorrow for many families, Easter this year was more symbolic than ever. We were reminded of our need for social connection and we are also called upon to maintain a sense of hope in these dark days.

One of the peculiar features of the current situation is that our natural inclination to move towards people in need is thwarted by the critical requirement to maintain social distance. John Donne’s proposition that “no man is an island” has been turned on its head. This time of year, around Spring, is traditionally a time for gatherings and get-togethers but, in order to save lives, we must all become islands. Hundreds of millions of us throughout the world are learning a new way of existing, one that challenges our inherently social nature. 

Staying connected while distanced is important and, as we look set to face an extended period in isolation, it is more pertinent now than ever. Decades of research have shown that loneliness has a significant negative impact, not only on our mental health, but also on our physical health. When lonely, our immune systems don’t function as well; we respond more negatively to stressful events; we are more likely to suffer from depression and to lose sleep. There is even evidence to show that loneliness can shorten our lives. 

Togetherness, apart

There are two important considerations that can help us decrease our sense of isolation and loneliness. Firstly, we must know that we are not alone – we are all in this together. This sense of shared adversity heightens our awareness of our common humanity and makes us more understanding and more compassionate with each other. This, together with our capacity for adaptation, is creating some wonderful new solutions, many of which feature balconies – singing in Italy, Kaddish prayer in New York and bingo in Ringsend!

The second important consideration is that most of us have access to excellent digital technology like social media which allows us to stay connected. We are learning to use communication technologies in new and creative ways that mimic the informality we use when we are face to face. 

The following strategies can help to make social isolation more bearable:

  1. Consider that, as we are all in this together, we have more in common with more people than is usually the case. 

  1. Comforting others is one of the best ways of feeling comforted oneself.

  1. Controlling the amount of information about the outbreak that we are exposed to and making sure that it is reliable helps prevent spiralling anxiety. 

  1. Creating “worry windows” – times, perhaps half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening when we engage with the information and allow ourselves to worry, keeping the rest of the time as normal and as engaging as possible – helps decrease anxiety-inducing overload.

  1. Learning to use social media in new and informal ways such as coffee meetings, book club get-togethers and children’s play dates helps maintain more natural social engagement. 

  1. Taking exercise, eating and sleeping as well as we can, learning and practising meditation and spending time in nature, all help to maintain wellness.

Cultivating and maintaining a sense of hope is an important antidote to stress, anxiety and depression. There is much to be hopeful for through all of this, consider:

  • The biological structure of the virus and its means of transmission are known
  • The impact of Covid-19 is mild in many people and most will recover
  • Research to find a vaccine and effective drugs is accelerating
  • The pattern seen in China shows a positive trajectory
  • The crisis is bringing about a reassessment of modern life
  • We are developing a greater appreciation for the health of our planet and a greater understanding of the extent to which all of us are interlinked.

The poet Emily Dickinson beautifully described hope as follows: “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops – at all. “

How we handle things

As we move through this time in our lives we may not always be able to spend as much time as we would like with families and friends. Many have lost loved ones in circumstances that are extremely hard to bear. As we continue to isolate for the sake of each other and especially for our heroic health professionals, we can look forward and hope for better times when we will be able to celebrate together again in the normal way. 

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In his famous book Man’s Search for Meaning, the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust, distinguished between liberty and freedom. His key insight, as a prisoner in the concentration camps, was that, whereas his liberty could be denied him, he was free to choose his response to what was happening to him. The same is true for all of us facing into this uncertain future in which our liberty must be significantly curtailed.

We are free to choose our response and, in choosing how we do so, we can be guided by our sense of solidarity with our fellow human beings. We can express our fundamentally altruistic nature and we can learn that our deepest human meaning is to be found in doing something for others. By responding to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”, we can save lives.

Professor Ciaran O’Boyle is Director of the Royal College of Surgeons in IrelandCentre for Positive Psychology and Health.

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Professor Ciaran O’Boyle

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