Maureen Gaffney: ‘Covid-19 has scored a direct hit on our most basic psychological drives’

Forget the ‘new normal’ and live in the ‘now normal’, advises the clinical psychologist


Stormy weather
Just can’t get my poor self together
I’m weary all the time,
So weary all the time…
Stormy weather just can’t seem to get my self together
I’ll be here all the time

Sing it again, Lena Horne. At this stage, two months in to lockdown we are all a bit weary. Early on, we kept ourselves busy, launching into a frenzy of baking and spring-cleaning. A listener told Ryan Tubridy on his radio show that they were taking all the handles off the doors in the house to clean them, prompting Ryan to wonder out loud if we were we all going barmy. We probably were.

And if we weren’t then, we almost certainly are now. We’ve had to mute our emotional reactions, to dial down anxiety and sadness to avoid feeling overwhelmed. We hold our breath, bracing for some new alarm. But muting negative emotions also dampens down our experience of positive emotions – exuberance, fun, full-throated joy.


This morning, I thought it had been a long time since I had those feelings, so I gave them an airing. I belted out a 1990s pop classic with full You Tube musical backing. And I felt better afterwards, restored to my self in some way.

Coronavirus is one of those crises that divides our lives into “before” and “after”. But it took a while for this to sink in. Way back in February or early March, we thought it might go the Chinese way – three months of lockdown and then back to normal, just in time to enjoy the summer. Then, as things got worse, we resigned ourselves to waiting until September, hoping to book a late holiday. Now we know that’s probably not going to happen, and we have to adapt to a new and unsettling reality – that there is no known end-date, and that the consequences of the corona virus pandemic may have changed life more permanently.

As we accept that the old normal is unlikely to return, there’s a lot of discussion about the “new normal” and what it might look like. But that implies some stability, a movement from one steady state to another, assuming a certainty that just isn’t there.

We’ve all had a crash course on pandemics, immunity, and on the weasely coronavirus, but what we know is vastly outweighed by what we don’t yet know about it. All we can be sure of, for now, is that being infected by coronavirus confers about eight weeks immunity, but we don’t know what happens after that, or what kind of immunity is reflected in the level of antibodies present in the body.

We don't know if a reliable vaccine can be developed, or how long it would take to be distributed and rolled out to entire populations. Bill Gates, who warned in 2015 that a new pandemic was inevitable is now advising that factories to manufacture that vaccine should already be in construction. If the sluggish rate of testing in Ireland were to be replicated in rolling out the vaccine, we could be looking at a long wait for full coverage.

When the world around you changes in a more radical way, uncertainty becomes an existential threat

So we have to adopt what Juliette Kayyem, a former US Department of Homeland Security official, calls a steady-state suppression effort, a whack-a-mole strategy of testing, isolating, treating. So the question no longer is, when is this crisis going to end? The question is how we are going to keep going. All we have before us now, and for a long time to come, is the "now normal", a prolonged period of uncertainty.

And nobody likes uncertainty.

Trying to reduce uncertainty accounts for much of what we do in life. Rationally, we know that there is no certainty in life apart from the fact that one day we will die. But that knowledge doesn’t stop us seeking as much certainty as we can to make it tolerable and cognitively manageable.

A temporary period of uncertainty – when there is the prospect of gain – is tolerable, but even then it’s accompanied by anxiety. But when the world around you changes in a more radical way, uncertainty becomes an existential threat. Our mental map of the environment is suddenly out of date, undermining the basic assumptions that we have about ourselves and about the future.

Covid-19 is forcing us to factor in a new sense of vulnerability into how we think about ourselves and those we love. We suddenly feel unanchored in the world.

The immediate human response to the threat of uncertainty is to double down on your in-group. You want to be near to the people you feel closest to, who share your values and beliefs, and bolster your worldview. But you also react more negatively, more angrily, to those who challenge you, or as you see it, violate your values and beliefs. You become more vigilant about fairness, and whether you are getting your fair share of community resources, or if others are getting more, which will now play out in politics and in your personal life.

Uncertainty is not a cool cognitive process. It is hot and visceral, a tightening in your chest, a contraction in your gut. It activates the amygdala, the alarm system in the brain, which triggers the stress response, a diffuse physiological arousal in your body that you experience as highly adverse.

Managing uncertainty uses up a lot of cognitive and emotional energy. The more prolonged it is, the more it strains your adaptive ability and the bigger the toll on your wellbeing. Sometimes it flares into acute fear: somebody near you has a bout of explosive coughing; someone you know falls ill – you feel prickles of anxiety, immediately followed by self-doubt.

Are you over-reacting, you wonder? Then a little spike of panic as you wonder how you’d cope if you became very ill with the virus, or someone you love did.

But most of the time, uncertainty creates a low-level, free-floating anxiety, interspersed by bouts of worry and mood swings. “I was grand yesterday,” a friend tells me. “I thought I was dealing with the whole situation really well. But this morning, out of the blue, I just burst into tears. But I’m okay again now.”

There is an underlying irritability that can flash into an unexpected and too-sharp response to someone who disagrees with you. Where did that come from you wonder?

Up to now, we have shown a remarkable resilience and creativity. We are enthusiastic about sharing tips on how to make do, our version of the spirit of the Blitz. Even technophobes have taken to video calls on Zoom like ducks to water. Grandparents are using it to read bedtime stories to their grandchildren. But it’s second best.

It’s harder to have the kind of free-flowing relaxed conversation that happens when you are around a table sharing a meal or having a drink. The intense focus on faces, on listening, on reading intention and reaction leaves you slightly agitated afterwards. The constant ping of WhatsApp updates, once a reassuring reminder that life goes on, has begun to grate.

But as the crisis and the attendant uncertainty wears on, we are slowly being worn down. What saps resilience is not a big adjustment to a major crisis, but having to constantly adapt to small changes. It gets harder to come up with new strategies to feel better and stay productive, and you have less confidence that they will work. As the restrictions are gradually lifted, you will have to make more and more micro-decisions about what’s safe, what’s within the guidelines. All of these judgments soak up cognitive and emotional resources. That’s why you feel fatigued although you may be doing less than you normally would.

People have lived under lockdown before. Antarctic explorers had to endure extreme isolation, but also being cooped up together in a 10-foot room for long periods as they “wintered over”. They suffered bouts of low mood, insomnia, depression, and irritability. That already sounds familiar – and we are just two months into lockdown.

But be grateful for small mercies – at least we haven’t yet developed the Antarctic stare; an altered state of consciousness characterised by extreme absentmindedness, mind wandering, and reduced situational awareness.

Covid-19 has scored a direct hit on our most basic psychological drives: the needs for closeness in your personal relationships with family and friends, the need for autonomy and control over the organisation and direction of your life and your work, and to do all of that effectively. These are not simply desires. They are deeply rooted in your instinctive behavioural systems, influencing the neural circuits in your brain, activating the hormonal and operating systems that influence motivation, behaviour, and stress response. If one or more of these drives is chronically thwarted, it will exact a heavy toll on your happiness and physical wellbeing. And at the very least, they are being severely tested during this crisis.

Love in the time of Covid is a trickier business than usual, especially if there are existing tensions

So it's not surprising that psychological wellbeing has taken a big hit. A recent Central Statistics Office (CSO) survey found that only 12 per cent of us now rate our overall satisfaction with life as high, compared to 44 per cent this time two years ago, and lower than it was in 2013 when we were still suffering the effects of the 2008 financial crisis.

More of us feel downhearted, depressed, nervous and lonely. One in five of those over 70 report being very stressed by being confined to their homes. Almost two-thirds report being very concerned about someone else’s health and more than a quarter worry about their own health while 77 per cent are concerned about the stress families are suffering because of the enforced confinement.

That distress is leaking into our personal relationships – there’s a substantial drop in the numbers of people who rate their satisfaction as high in their personal relationships. Even in the best of relationships, being cooped up together under lockdown creates tensions and can widen the existing cracks in already distressed situations.

Love in the time of Covid is a trickier business than usual, especially if there are existing tensions in your relationship. As families deal with the stress of confinement; mothers, fathers, children and near relatives are all taking turns playing victim, persecutor, and rescuer in whatever drama is playing out.

The over-70s are still largely confined to their homes and have their own set of frustrations. Their autonomy has been severely curtailed, the daily routines that scaffold their lives and are integral to maintaining their identity and sense of self-sameness are all disrupted. They are awash with offers of help and support but that can create its own problems.

One 80-year-old friend said she was fielding so many calls from extended family, friends and neighbours with offers of support or wanting to keep her company on the phone that she has no time to get anything done anymore. “And I can hardly get off the calls by saying I must go somewhere,” she says. “I mean, I can’t say I’m going anywhere because they know I can’t.”

Those who have children rely on their help and are grateful for it. But there may be tetchy exchanges.The hard-won peace brokered between mothers and their adult daughters comes under strain as mothers grow resentful about being bossed around and daughters become frustrated by their stubborn resistance, a reversed replay of adolescence. Ageing mothers may be frail in the face of the coronavirus risk, but they are tough cookies. Otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted this long.

It’s not so great for adolescents either. As they see it, they have the worst of it because if there’s one thing, no, five things, that freak out the adolescent mind it’s the combination of being separated from your friends, stuck with your family all day, nagged ceaselessly about studying, tormented by younger siblings and bored.Coronavirus delivered the full package.

If you are a young or not-so-young single adult who is looking for love, it’s a lonely time. There’s a lot of pent-up frustration there. At the moment, a suggested socially distant walk, and possibly a take away coffee is all that’s on offer. As the summer rolls on, with café and restaurants opening, things will brighten up, but the rules and etiquette of social-distance dating, not to mention anything more intimate, are yet to be worked out.

And what about the married? Well, there’s a story waiting to be told. In the ordinary course of events, partners have worked out a set of routines to get things done. Now those routines are disrupted and everyone feels put upon. The blessed relief of parallel lives for at least half the day, the distractions that usually calm frayed nerves and put things into perspective are now less available.

In lockdown, you are tripping over each other, like a newly retired couple. As well as the usual grumbling about sharing household duties, there are unexpected flash points about how to load the dishwasher, or stand-offs about how to do the laundry. In a crowded household, with partners working from home and children home schooling, there is little opportunity to blow off steam with friends in long phone calls, or walking along a public footpath two metres apart. Although that did not prevent a very frazzled woman in my local park recently talking at great length and at high volume about an argument she just had with her husband.

All the usual hot-button items, notably reciprocity and fairness, and who gets to decide things, are all inflamed by uncertainty, stress, and lack of privacy. The hothouse of confinement can make everything seem more in your face, less escapable, less resolvable.

So, as nerves fray, what can you do? Well, my advice is to set a very modest goal. Old or young, single or married, how about aiming to still be on speaking terms with everybody when this thing finally ends? Don’t be tempted to try for a full and final resolution of the big-ticket tensions in your close relationships. Not now, anyway. This is not the Northern peace process, where nothing was agreed until everything was agreed.

Anything that gets agreed during lockdown is a major achievement. For now, forget about the new age relationship competencies like openness and mutual fulfilment. Instead, practice unfashionable but saintly virtues of prudence, temperance and forbearance.

There is the possibility that you will experience what's called stress-related growth, one of the most life-affirming research findings in psychology

You’ve had a lot of time to think for the last two months. You’ve listened to birdsong, looked up at uncluttered blue skies, walked along quiet roads. You’ve thought about your life, your relationships and the fragility and preciousness of everything. That will stay in your mind, and in time, when the now normal becomes the new normal, it will open new possibilities.

But for now, the job is to keep up, keep going, and keep sane.

But while you muddle on, there is the possibility that you will experience what’s called stress-related growth, one of the most life-affirming research findings in psychology, that showed that when people face a major crisis in their personal lives – a traumatic bereavement, an accident that leaves them permanently disabled, or any other severe loss, their functioning is immediately and negatively affected. But, remarkably, virtually all survive. A majority work their way back to their previous level of functioning, even if their lives are different. But a sizeable proportion don’t just recover, they keep going, reaching a level of optimal functioning that they had never experienced before.

They are able to reframe the crisis as a positive turning point, seeing the adversity that has befallen them not as some random visitation of bad luck but as intrinsic to the personal growth that followed. They flourished not in spite of the setback, but because of it. By re-constructing their narrative in this way, they "flip" time, repositioning the crisis not as an end, but as the beginning of something new, what psychologist Jennifer Pals calls the opening act in a transformative and redemptive sequence. We can do the same with this crisis.

Dr Maureen Gaffney is a clinical psychologist and author of Flourishing: How to Achieve A Deeper Sense Of Well-Being, Meaning And Purpose – Even When Facing Adversity (Penguin 2011). Her new book Your One Wild And Precious Life will be published later this year.