I see so many people suffering, and it breaks my heart. I hear it everywhere around me in the voices of my family members, friends, (Zoom) leadership conference participants, coworkers, and students. I notice this suffering easily because it also exists inside of me.
We are collectively suffering from two pandemics: a physical health pandemic and a mental health pandemic. The mental health pandemic is characterized by skyrocketing levels of loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other negative indicators of our current psychological well-being. A recent CDC survey, for example, has found that 40 percent of Americans are reporting mental health issues.
Over 60 percent of Americans were lonely before the COVID pandemic; in the UK, the Royal College of General Practitioners had already identified a “loneliness epidemic,” in part because British children were spending less time outside than prison inmates. With quarantining the method of choice to cope with the fear of contracting this potentially deadly virus, loneliness has now increased to unsustainable levels.
Anxiety—an existential, difficult-to-identify emotion resulting from a perceived threat to our existence in the environment—has tripled from pre-pandemic levels. The sources of our anxiety are many, and are surfacing in the physical, social, economic, political, and psychological dimensions of our lives.
Extended periods with a few family members or friends can also cause anxiety, in no small part because they expose deep, unresolved tensions that add to (and are piqued by) the already high level of stress stemming from what’s going on outside the home. Consequently, domestic abuse cases are also on the rise, leading the UN to claim the existence of a “shadow pandemic.”
Acknowledging that we are experiencing both a physical health pandemic and a mental health pandemic offers a conceptual window into how each of us can devise better solutions to cope with not it (the threat to our physical health), but them (the threats to both our physical and mental health).
First, we must understand that loneliness is not an emotion that can be endured for an extended period of time. A whole host of studies, including research I have conducted with Sarah Wright of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, have found that loneliness clouds our judgment, reduces our concern for others, and makes it harder to develop relationships, and therefore is self-perpetuating.
Indeed, when torture is no longer an option the most toxic punishment meted out to prisoners is solitary confinement. Most cannot handle it and some experience irrevocable damage to their mental health. “So what do we do now?” you may be thinking. “I don’t want to contract this virus and so I’m staying home, and am very lonely. Yet at least I’m safe.”
“But are you?”
If you stay home 24-7 and order your groceries and other products and have someone else imbibe small levels of bacteria and possibly COVID to deliver them, is that really tenable for much longer?
Loneliness, again, is likely to obscure your good judgment and lead to poor decisions when you finally emerge from your digitally-mediated cave. These loneliness-abetted decisions may include dropping your guard too quickly because you crave social connection so desperately.
Human beings have risen to the top of the food chain due to our capacity to use our larger brains to develop our social abilities. We utilize these abilities to collaborate with each other to outmaneuver more physically imposing and dangerous animals and organize child rearing, food consumption, and other community functions.
Consequently, we have evolved into social animals that are not meant to be isolated for long periods. We need each other not only for social reasons, but also to sustain our physical health. We need to breathe the same air into which other people and animals exhale and plants emit bacteria in order to remain healthy; otherwise, we run the risk of losing our resistance to the bacteria that surrounds us 24-7.
One theory suggests that it’s not only your age and whether you have pre-existing respiratory or other health conditions that determine your susceptibility to succumb to the virus if you were to contract it—it’s also how much of it you absorb. Now I’m going out on a limb here because I am not a medical doctor, so please read what follows not as medical advice, but merely as the musings of a concerned individual who has been reading all the same stories you have over the past eight months.
With that qualifier, here goes: Following Aristotle’s “golden mean” theory—in which an optimal moral decision lies somewhere between deficiency and excess—too much exposure to COVID—by sitting in a room with others who have the virus, for example—is clearly not good for your health.
Yet, in addition to the mental health implications of quarantining, avoiding going outside to avoid such people may not be good for your physical health either. (Not to mention that one activity you can engage in outdoors—exercise—is widely considered necessary for both your physical and mental health.) A logical conclusion of the viral-load theory is that consuming small traces of bacteria—including, possibly, COVID—may help you develop antibodies that increase your resistance to it.
Older people are often quick to criticize youth today for not practicing as rigid social distancing as they are. Yet it is possible that, by increasing their exposure, younger people are developing antibodies that, in the long-run, may help everyone. The opposite, however—as many critics of Sweden’s attempt at herd immunity attest—may also be true. All told, there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty across the globe about how this virus spreads, which is why so many are so anxious about it. We. Just. Don’t. Know.
So how to navigate this uncertainty? Perhaps the answer hangs in the balance. There may be a “golden mean” between two opposing, untenable options—in this case, shuttering yourself at home and becoming a “Zoombie” in order to connect with others (which is likely to only compound your loneliness) or taking off your mask and hugging every stranger you see.
The golden mean that takes into account your need for both physical safety and psychological well-being may be to walk outside regularly, even daily, sometimes with a friend, and to breathe in the air facilitated by the verdant trees on this beautiful earth. To acknowledge every day that, besides one another, nature is one of the greatest gifts we have been given in this lifetime.
Alternatively, finding your unique balance between safety and connection may be to send your children to a school that you feel is taking the necessary precautions. It may be to have lunch with a friend or two regularly at a local park.
It may be that when you go for a walk and pass someone, or are going to walk or stand within six feet of another person, that you pull up your mask—to protect both them and yourself. Alternatively, and especially when the other person is older, you can show your warmth and respect by keeping your distance and waving. In their emergence from their lonely, cloistered existence, other people need social acknowledgment just as much as you do.
It may be that if you go to a restaurant, you ask to sit outside. It may be that you only patronize restaurants that take temperature checks at the door and socially distance their tables. It may be that if you see a server going lax on wearing her or his mask (pulling them down below the nose, for instance), you try another restaurant next time, hence supporting businesses fostering the same balance between safety and connection you are seeking.
It may be that if you go to the supermarket, you wear your mask, socially distance, and put antibacterial gel on your hands after touching the food and before touching your steering wheel or, yes, your phone.
Most important is that—based on your age, your pre-existing medical conditions, and, ultimately, your tolerance for risk—you design your own balanced, golden-mean strategies to healthily live through the two pandemics currently besieging us. Write down a few of these strategies you will begin practicing to find this ethereal balance.
About the Author:
Anthony Silard, Ph.D. is a world-renowned leadership educator and coach. He has coached G-20 cabinet ministers and the CEOs and senior leaders of Fortune 500 companies such as Disney, IBM and GE and the world’s largest nonprofits such as CARE and Save the Children. He has taught leadership at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, California State University San Bernardino, Claremont McKenna College and IESE Business School and has lectured on leadership at Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown. His new book, Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, was just released in March 2020. You can find more articles on his weekly blog The Art of Living Free.