Knox College faculty member Frank McAndrew, Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology, studies human social behavior from an evolutionary perspective and is especially interested in understanding the psychology of everyday life. He offered some insights and advice related to the situations that people are dealing with during the coronavirus pandemic.
Obviously, we are all struggling to different degrees with the isolation measures designed to protect us from coronavirus. Why is isolation so difficult for humans?
Human beings are very social animals—cutting us off from social contact deprives us of a basic human need and it is highly stressful.
From your perspective as a psychologist, what are some of the ways that the "stay home" restrictions may affect people—e.g., their mood, their energy level?
The word "restrictions" is key here. If a person has freely chosen to work from home and be isolated, the effects would be much less severe. The problem with a lockdown or a quarantine is that the individual is experiencing something that has happened to him or her rather than something freely chosen. This makes us feel helpless and at the mercy of forces beyond our control. Thus, we are at a disadvantage from the get-go, leading to pessimism and a sense of defeat.
The loss of control over one's life can easily undermine one's mood and energy level. Also, the thing that determines how stressful an event is is the amount of change that it requires in one's life, and forced isolation changes everything. We are no longer doing the same things at the same time in the same places with the same people—and this is exhausting.
Habits and routines allow us to go about our day with many tasks on automatic pilot, leaving a lot of cognitive capacity for new or complicated things that demand it. When everything changes at once, very little is on automatic pilot, and so we wear ourselves out.
What can people do to make it somewhat easier to deal with the situation?
Establish a routine. As much as possible, create a new normal so your life can follow a predictable rhythm. Maximize social contact. Social media such as Skype and Facetime that allow you to actually see faces and hear voices are better than email and texting which remove the face-to-face interaction element of social contact that we are programmed for.
Some people have written/said that introverts might not be struggling as much with the isolation measures as extroverts are. What do you think of that notion?
That may be true; or it may not. Both introverts and extroverts must deal with changed routines and a loss of control over life, so both will experience stress. Yes, extroverts crave social interaction more than introverts, but they may also be more resourceful and motivated to make it happen during isolation. I think this is very much an open question.
What are some of your own coping strategies?
I have established a routine, and this has been helpful. So far, I have been desperately preoccupied with getting my courses in shape for online teaching, so I have been able to stay pretty busy. As stressful as it is, in some ways it is a benefit compared to having nothing to structure my time around. I need to start working on exercising more and eating and drinking less. There are too many temptations when one is home all the time!
What's your advice for students (especially Knox students) as they work to adjust—academically and socially—to this all-online spring term?
I do not have much to add to the things I have already mentioned. Stay socially connected and establish a routine. Remind yourself that this situation will pass and that it will be a highly memorable part of your life. Anything that you can do to make the lives of others better during this time will also boost your own sense of purpose and well-being.
Photo at top of page: Frank McAndrew speaks with visitors at a Knox College open house.