Interview: Social distancing and social bonding are not mutually exclusive, says psychologist Hani Henry

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 31 Mar 2020

For some, staying at home is proving a serious psychological challenge

A family with protective masks is seen at a market before the start of night-time curfew to contain
A family with protective masks is seen at a market before the start of night-time curfew to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Cairo, Egypt March 29, 2020. (Reuters)

As the evening curfew continues in Egypt, state officials are again and again calling on people to stay at home as much as possible.

With the continued scare over the new coronavirus and its huge impact on the health systems of the richest countries in the world, the call for social distancing has been gaining more ground.

However, for some, staying at and possibly also working from home is proving a serious psychological challenge, especially with no clear end in sight for the coronavirus scare.

Hani Henry, professor of psychology at the American University in Cairo, says that the firm discomfort that some people suffer from over social distancing is related mostly to their own assessment of the situation. “Those who have an exaggerated or a dismissive assessment of the problem would find it very hard to manage through,” Henry said.

Those who tend to be dismissive of the health warnings over the fast circulation of COVID-19 would find no reason to stay at home “simply because they fail to see the problem,” Henry said. This, he added, might be “a defence mechanism on the part of people who would not wish to face the pressing problems, but it also might be a function of poor assessment of the situation that is prompted by insufficient or misleading information about the actual facts,” he added.

Either way, Henry argued, the dismissive type would always try to break the stay-at-home requirement. “They would be telling themselves things like ‘the state always manages’, ‘we are on top of it’, ‘I am immune’ or any of these phrases,” he said.

Meanwhile, he added, those who tend to have an exaggerated assessment of the situation would find it very difficult to confine themselves peacefully to their homes “because they feel very gloomy and think that everything is doomed to fall apart.”

These people might also be overestimating the threat of the virus due to an excessive dose of pessimistic assessments in the media or social media, Henry argued. Then again, he added, they might simply be suffering from “possibly a severe form” of OCD or generalised anxiety disorder.

Hani Henry
Hani Henry, professor of psychology at the American University in Cairo

Both the dismissive and the panicking groups, Henry said, should be finding a way out of their dilemmas – not just to be able to actually stay at home, as required by the health guidelines, but to make this stay peaceful and purposeful.

One thing to help people have a reasonable assessment of the situation, Henry argued, is to secure oneself from the flood of inaccurate information.

These groups, he said, should not follow just any source of news. They should rather opt for one source, preferably a scientific and simple source, to get their information.

Beyond trying to build a sound assessment of the situation, people staying at home, including those who have a reasonable read on the situation, should not turn this stay into excessive solitude.

“Social distancing and social bonding are not necessarily mutually exclusive,” he argued.

“People have been largely joking about it, but in fact it is true that the more time family members spend together at home away from the many distractions and activities that each member would otherwise have on an individual basis, the more they would be able to bond,” he argued.

“Working parents and children, Henry said, might find a rare opportunity to do activities and play games together or simply just to talk and to listen to one another,” he added.

Social bonding, Henry added, could also be about friends and co-workers and this could obviously be done through social media, which allows people not just to chat but to play games together and watch movies or shows at the same time, each from the comfort of one’s home.

Then, Henry argued, the work from home routine should not be allowed to create a sense of discomfort about the house as it becomes a permanent work place.

Working from home, Henry said, should not mean permanent availability for the work place. “People should create a routine, wake up and freshen up around the same time that one would do usually; then start work for the duration of typical working hours, and then just switch off communication with the work place unless it is absolutely necessary,” he suggested.

Moreover, Henry argued, one should not be spending one’s day in the same room. “One should work from a room, say the dining room or the living room or wherever, and then move to another room to have a meal and mingle with family members, watch a movie or do some shared activities,” he suggested.

“If one ends up spending all their time in one room, it would be a matter of a few days before one starts to feel literally stuck,” he added.

Stagnation is the last thing that anyone needs while exercising social distancing, Henry insisted.

“There is always something to do to introduce some change – even if you have but one room there is always a possibility of changing the place of a seat, sitting closer or further from the window or the balcony or bringing the curtains down or up,” he argued.

Henry acknowledged the concern that some couples have over spending a lot more time together than usual. He agreed that some couples fear that this would prompt boredom or simply squabbling.

Couples with tough relationships need to make their joint stay at home peaceful by having parallel routines. “If someone likes to read and another prefers to watch TV, then the couple could be doing this independently,” he argued.

Actually, Henry said, the togetherness of staying at home should not be about the violation of each other’s space. This, he added, is not just about couples in tense relationships, but also about economically challenged families who share very small apartments.

“Even if one does not have enough physical space there is always a way to create a psychological space, like by getting engrossed in reading a book, studying, cooking or doing anything of interest,” he said.

The creation of the independent psychological space, he argued, is essential in avoiding extensive squabbling that might in cases lead to domestic violence.

Obviously, Henry said, in some cases domestic violence is more a reflection of the issues on the part of the family member who exercises violence rather than the actions of the violated members. This is why, he added, the respective hotlines that are there to receive the complaints of victims of domestic violence should upgrade their performance during this period with extra lines and with well-trained teams that could help callers, be they women or children, to manage through the difficult times.

Henry underlined the role of the media in reducing the levels of individual or family tension and of making the stay-at-home exercise less stressful. Interesting and stimulating programs, light and fun programming of films and soap operas and replays of favourite shows and programs could all help entertain and distract, he said.


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