The psychological consequences of isolation are known, to an extent. But the drawbacks of enforced togetherness are not Image Credit: Shutterstock

We know the dangers of loneliness, but the drawbacks of living in small spaces with the same people can have an impact on emotional self-regulation, too.

The psychological consequences of isolation are known, to an extent. But the drawbacks of enforced togetherness are not. Therapeutically speaking, we are in uncharted territory, and data beyond the anecdotal is in very short supply. But there are hints that the impact may be weightier than we realise.

Divorce lawyers predict an increase in their work after the acute crisis passes, and reports suggest that Chinese cities have seen a recent surge. Even more worrying is the dramatic increase in calls to organisations dealing with domestic abuse, up 25 per cent in the case of the UK’s National Domestic Abuse helpline.

The Second World War taught us the importance of our connections with the people that matter. Children were separated from their parents to protect them from being bombed. This led psychologists to study attachment in the post-war period.

Our need for attachment is deep-rooted — as important as food. We seek out the people we value, particularly when we are stressed. When faced with existential threat, as we are now, we depend on our loved ones and worry about those who are isolated.

Today, we are either alone or hermetically sealed off with our nearest and dearest. This totally unique situation is like a lens that magnifies sometimes unexpected character traits.

Being locked up together in small groups disrupts our emotional self-regulation, in ways that can lead to a variety of outcomes.

Some are glad of officially sanctioned isolation. One man told me of his relief that he doesn’t have to socialise, which usually makes him very anxious. Another, usually content in his relationship, said he could not bear another moment with his spouse, who was driving him mad. A young woman recently hitched is delighted to be cloistered with her new beau.

A more common theme, however, is of experiencing an emotional roller coaster.

A high level of contact between people who can’t get away from one another can boost levels of expressed emotion. The expression of emotion can, of course, be positive, but when tension is high this can feel intrusive and threatening. High expressed emotion has been found to increase the risk of mental disorder and it can cause anger to boil over and heighten the risk of violence.

Working with perpetrators of violence shows that they react to feeling trapped by hitting out. This is not just to control others. Rather, it is because their internal system for regulating emotional distance in relationships does not function properly, like a defective valve on a pressure cooker.

When emotion is running high we can lose the ability to empathise. Acts of aggression tend to be impulsive. An escalating argument is like a tennis match. As each player hits the ball harder, the other tends to hit it back with greater force and at a more difficult angle. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s better to act like a wall that deflects the shot at the same velocity, rather than an opponent who adds to the ferocity of the match.

The vast majority of families will navigate this crisis. Frustration will be managed. More arguments will not be a disaster. Emotional self-regulation will be temporarily lost and then retrieved. Relationships will stay intact and may even be improved by spending more quality time together. There will also be casualties. The test of enforced togetherness will be too great and there will be a larger number of divorces than usual. The main concern, however, will be for the already troubled families, perhaps with limited economic means, for whom lockdown could well lead to lock up. For these vulnerable people, it is vital that help be offered so that victims are not trapped in situations of danger.

Psychological therapies are vitally important. Troubled individuals need to be able to talk to experienced professionals who can help reduce the mood temperature. Private therapy is now widely available online.

This pandemic will help us to understand how we manage sharing small spaces with one another. In the meantime, there are many people who will need more immediate help to find their way through this.

Dr Stephen Blumenthal is consultant clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust.

The Daily Telegraph

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