How to cope with lockdown – a psychologist’s perspective


Dr Deborah Lancastle, psychologist

Impact of lockdown 

The global Covid-19 pandemic has changed our lives in many ways and one of the notable changes is that we are required to stay inside our own homes except for essential outings. Along with that we are concerned about the health of our loved ones and ourselves, access to resources, what will happen next, and when and how it will all end. 

Our anxieties are fed by continuous media coverage about the virus and by social media where rumours circulate, and people judge each other and compete to demonstrate just how perfectly they are managing the lockdown. 

In normal times, we might enjoy hobbies and interests which get us out and about - meeting friends, playing sport, and group activities. These usually provide welcome respite from everyday worries, but these activities are not permitted at the moment.  

Best way to cope with the demands of Covid-19  

Our resources to deal with difficult situations include internal resources (e.g., optimism, resilience) and external resources (e.g., support networks, physical resources). Access to external resources is currently difficult, meaning that our internal resources are put under immense strain to make up the shortfall. 

Unfortunately, there is not a single ‘right’ way to cope either, because each individual and family will have their own strengths and needs. What is perfect for one may be disastrous for another! Coupled with that, the Covid-19 situations doesn’t stay the same. 

Every day brings developments and new challenges, so what helped yesterday may be useless today. It is no surprise that coping theorists and researchers have argued for decades about whether there are better or worse ways of coping. The upshot is that ‘it depends’ – e.g., on the situation, the personality of the individual, and whether the problem can be solved.   

Psychological theories can explain our thoughts and feelings 

In 1984, a book was published, by two of the foremost experts in stress and coping, Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman. The bottom line of their definition of stress is that we become stressed when the demands of a situation outweigh our resources. This basic principle applies to any situation we ever encounter. 

Lazarus and Folkman also discuss characteristics of situations that increase their demands. These include whether we can control it, whether we are certain about how and when it will end, whether it is important to us, and whether we’ve experienced it before. These evaluations come along with emotions, e.g., tension and anxiety if we’re anticipating something threatening, or joy and contentment if we’re celebrating wonderful news. 

The Covid-19 pandemic can be given maximum marks for uncontrollability, importance, uncertainty, and novelty, which explains why it is hard to manage and makes us unhappy.     

Use psychological approaches to manage stress 

Theorists tend to agree that the extent to which we can change or control a situation is an important consideration when working out how best to deal with it. Traditionally, coping was divided into problem-focused coping (acting to solve the problem) and emotion-focused coping (making yourself feel better about the situation), with a more recent focus on meaning-based coping (focusing on positive aspects of the situation). 

In terms of controlling Covid-19, it seems unlikely that any single individual will suddenly ‘stop’ Covid-19 in its tracks, which means that the overall problem of Covid-19 is outside of our personal control. There are, however, specific aspects of the Covid-19 experience that we can change or control, such as following expert advice, looking after our families and trying to stay healthy. 

Acting to best manage the elements within our control can lead to positive emotions such as contentment, pride, and satisfaction, which increase psychological wellbeing. The aspects of Covid-19 that we can’t control, however, are probably the ones causing us the most worry. Coping in ways that have been linked with more positive and/or less negative emotions might help to lessen their power over the way we feel. 

Dr Lancastle's top five coping tips

  1. Social support:  We can’t meet people face to face but if we have access to telephones, social media, or video software, we can still keep in touch. Online forums also help some people, although it is important to be mindful of the effect of these on your well-being, especially if these are full of negative people/experiences and/or you compare yourself unfavourably with others.  

  2. Distraction: Immerse yourself in anything you enjoy and that takes your full attention, even if it is only for a short time. Savour the pleasure it brings.  

  3. Positive reappraisal: Focus on any positive incidents among the difficulties. This is difficult and everyone has different positives, but something as simple as a kind word or action, a plant coming in to bloom, or a phone call from a loved one, can take on greater importance in difficult times. Focusing on these incidents can help stop you ruminating on the many negative aspects of the current circumstances.  

  4. Relaxation: Try a reputable online mindfulness or meditation service, app, or DVD.  

  5. Avoidance: Usually, avoidance gets a very bad press, because it involves refusal or inability to attend to difficult circumstances. However, there is no such thing as an entirely ‘bad’ coping strategy! If the media or a particular social media site, for example, is causing you stress and worry, consider limiting your exposure to it.   

Other than these strategies, anything that makes you smile and laugh will be a positive addition to your repertoire! 

Stressful situations cause increased nervous system activity and unpleasant physical reactions such as a racing heart and exhaustion. 

Research suggests that positive emotions can lessen the physiological impact of negative emotions and give a “breather”, “sustainer”, or “restorer”, that will be welcome in these challenging times. 

About the author

Dr Deborah Lancastle is a HCPC registered and British Psychological Society Chartered Health Psychologist. Deborah lectures in the School of Psychology and Therapeutic Studies and oversees the MSc Clinical Psychology course