Chances are, many of us now have more time on our hands than we’re used to. Whether we’re out of work temporarily, or we simply no longer need to commute, the extra hours in the day could be a welcome – if foreign – change.
There are countless articles circling, telling us to learn a new skill, or workout several times a day, so that we can come out of the quarantine period healthier, smarter and stronger.
But what about our mental health? The isolation period brings with it a perfect chance that is unlikely to be repeated in our lifetimes (hopefully) to go all Jack Kerouac on our minds.
On that note – DMARGE approved books for getting introspective in this period are: On The Road, L’Etranger, The Consolations Of Philosophy, Nausea, Zorba The Greek, Crime & Punishment, Sapiens and (because why not?) 50 Shades Of Grey.
But we digress…
Rather than (or as well as) see how much of a new language we can learn (or how many books we can read) in two weeks, we wanted to find out how much we can glean about ourselves. We spoke to Dr Lars Madsen, one of Australia’s top clinical psychologists, who sits on the board of the mental health charity The Mindshift Foundation, to weigh in with what he believes we can achieve.
He begins by reiterating that this is an ideal time to take a break, “There are a ton of things people can learn. One of the most challenging things at the moment is our world is so fast-paced, and we have so much info coming at us all the time, [and] very rarely do we have the opportunity to just sit still and think.”
“We can now sit with our feelings and not have to be rushing, or doing something.”
“That can be really scary for people because a lot of the time we feel really quite uncomfortable with ourselves for all kinds of reasons.”
Being told we can’t go about our regular daily routines, and that we have to stay indoors all the time is a completely foreign concept for us. Spending too much time alone is commonly associated with spiralling into depression.
It’s important, however, to remember there is a distinction between someone who wants to be alone because they experience anxiety when placed in social situations, and someone who just likes to spend some quality time with themselves. It’s the latter group that can really benefit from isolation.
Dr Madsen adds, “We should learn to look at the positives of being in lockdown.”
”We can learn new skills, like practising mindfulness, or meditation. Slowing things down and thinking about ourselves, our lives, our relationships.”
”There’s a real space to grow psychologically and emotionally in this time.”
But how should we go about it? Ideally, we’d want to go deeper than asking questions such as “Do I need to be on my phone right now”, and carry out what’s known as introspection, the examination of our own mental and emotional processes.
There are arguments to suggest this isn’t the best practice, because most of the time we’ll ask ourselves “why?” questions. In an article published on Ted, Tasha Eurich refers to her own research, along with that of others, that suggests by asking ourselves why we are a certain way, can have a negative impact because “we tend to search for the easiest and most plausible answers.
“Generally, once we’ve found one or two, we stop looking.”
Tasha refers to a study carried out by psychologists J. Gregory Hixon and William Swann on a group of undergraduate students, who were told their personality would be rated based on results to a test. However, all students unknowingly received the same ratings: one positive and one negative. The group was split into two, with one being asked to evaluate why they were the kind of person they were, while the other was asked to think about what kind of person they were.
The ‘why’ group was found to be more resistant to the negative rating, whereas the ‘what’ group took the evaluation onboard and presumably used it to better help them understand themselves.
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We can therefore use this test result to ask ourselves ‘what?’ questions during the isolation period, because they’re more likely to arrive at positive answers compared to ‘why?’ questions. Tasha’s article gives some examples: “What am I feeling today?”, “What’s actually going on in my head?”, “What is a better way to look at this situation?”
Dr Madsen supports this view, “This isn’t a situation that happens often, this is the key thing.”
”People have to be open to it and reflect on it, and use it as a kind of opportunity that doesn’t just happen spontaneously.”
To quantify an answer to the headline question is near-on impossible. It’s not rational to be able to say, “you will learn X amount about yourself in two weeks.” Only you can find out the answer, but to do so, you need to commit to using the time wisely, and you need to be asking yourself the right questions.