How do you deal with society
Society can learn from the pandemic : "We are all in a huge psychological experiment"
Mr. Arno Deister, the corona pandemic is not the first event that could traumatize entire societies. Isn't there anything comparable that can help us?
We have analogies, but they don't refer to the same thing. Take the Spanish flu, which many are talking about now. It is certainly present in the collective subconscious as an epidemic experience, possibly also as a traumatic experience. But the different context of the experiences determines the different behavior.
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The corona crisis is characterized by a massive loss of control with a simultaneous rapid transfer of information and knowledge. Having to know everything but not being able to do anything as a citizen is unique. We are therefore in the middle of a huge psychological experiment.
Don't you have an enormous loss of control and the resulting fears, even in war?
We can only grasp what we can grasp or touch. In war there is always an enemy, so there is at least the feeling of being able to act. A whole group is attacked or attacked, which means that they have more emotional control over their own fears. Now the battle is in doing nothing, and that is the great loss of control, we cannot act actively.
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Can I stay active in doing nothing?
Doing by doing nothing is only possible through awareness. I help, act by staying at home. It is also not the same situation for everyone: in principle, hospitals now work perfectly because they do what they have been trained to do: help, protect, access and apply knowledge, that has an enormous solidarity effect. The food banks, on the other hand, are also dependent on helpers who, however, cannot come now and therefore cannot act.
Is there such a thing as societal imprints caused by crises or do the consequences always remain individual?
No. Individuals and groups are affected, albeit in different ways. In crises, we know that groups, societies, nations are also abused. Wars, for example, serve to use external pressure for internal solidarity. You build enemy images to get people behind you. Authoritarian politicians do the same in other situations.
Donald Trump first spoke of the China virus in order to pass the danger and possible blame on to others; he tried to instrumentalize the crisis for himself. In Hungary, the virus is being built up as a threat to enforce political measures that might otherwise not be enforceable. Putin and Erdogan also use this type of loyalty that is forced through pressure.
But that would mean that those who act nationally and isolate themselves have an advantage over the liberal-open ones?
At first glance, maybe. Because people are used to gathering behind those who act. Behind the powerful, behind those who can make solutions visible.
Authoritarian leadership usually leads to disaster, haven't we learned that too?
First of all, it is a mechanism that is deeply embedded in us humans, which primarily has something to do with the need for protection. The desire for isolation is always a protective function - for fear of the foreign, the unknown, the invisible.
Of course we know what it can lead to when the separation of powers is overridden. The first big boost for National Socialism was the Great Depression. Hitler played with many images of the enemy and used them deliberately, and they got caught.
But haven't we long since learned that peace can best be secured through constructive multilateralism and that crises are best resolved together, across competencies?
Yes we have. In Western Europe such an attitude is still acceptable to the majority, but elsewhere? Then there is the fact that the defensive reflex, as I said, is a natural behavior - Stone Age man quickly ran into the cave when a large, wild animal passed by.
When does the good news come?
You have already said it: that we are also capable of learning as a group. Behavior is more than action, it is also made up of the question of how do I perceive something: with what feelings, for example. The better I can do both, as a group and as an individual, i.e. act and at the same time find out how I am doing and who could help me, the better I get through crises.
In the corona crisis we are practicing again, a big task. I think people understand that the liberal-open variant helps more in the long term because it knows more empathy, solidarity and democratic cooperation.
Do we lack socio-psychological knowledge to make such events and the fears that arise from them explainable?
Yes, we've all become primarily virologists now. That's okay too. They do an excellent job. But the second step is missing, the question of how do I feel and what do I make of it? Psychological knowledge should become more important, the expert advice on data, figures, measures should be valued as well as the expertise on physical and mental needs. We very much underestimate how great the risk is to our mental health as well.
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What would be the basic knowledge that we should absolutely acquire?
A very practical example is knowledge of the importance of structure for us humans. We have now quickly learned that it helps to have a daily structure in the home office and to distinguish between work and private life at home and with the family. If you can't do it, and it's really very difficult, you quickly have problems. So there may be an argument. In the worst case, violence.
Are there any other examples?
How do we deal with information? We need them, but they may also be frightening. We shouldn't perceive every push message, but rather inform ourselves regularly, but for a limited time. Then we won't drown in the flood of information.
Communication is also a key to psychological understanding. How do you talk publicly during a pandemic, like Macron or like Merkel?
Macron put a lot of emphasis on structure with the concept of war: You have to do this because I say it. Merkel, on the other hand, campaigned for understanding, both of which have an emotional side. As always, the solution lies somewhere in the middle. Because we have to acknowledge that people are afraid, no matter how justified the fear may be.
We are now complaining about the ban on touch and social contact, weren't we a largely lonely society before Corona?
That's true. But feeling lonely and alone are two things. We can be alone now, but reduce loneliness.
Loneliness always works as a feeling, and therein lies the chance: Those who are alone, older people for example, singles, do not have to be lonely because you take care of them, make phone calls, Skyp, write, bring something over.
But what about people who have had depression or anxiety disorders before? What do you advise them?
On the one hand, these patients are clearly at risk of increasing symptoms - and they therefore also represent a risk group. On the other hand, many of them have already learned helpful behavioral patterns in previous therapy that they can now apply and should.
The current situation represents a great challenge, especially for this group of people and for the therapists. Therapeutic measures must therefore be intensified in many cases. I very much hope that this can happen too.
Let's stay before the time of the pandemic. What exactly led so many people into depression, burnout or the feeling of alienation when we were so free and allowed to be as individual as no one before us?
Man is a social being. We define ourselves through our social behavior. They make us more or less visible. Put simply, before Corona we neglected what social aspects are that protect us.
Now we may learn that social aspects can also lead to protection. And that in turn opens up an additional instrument for us that helps us define what kind of society we want to be.
Is that also biological learning?
Yes, I guess it is. About our mirror neurons, for example. I observe others and at the same time activate feelings via these neurons, which in turn teaches me. I only learn certain things by interacting with others. So we can mirror the emotions of the other, to put it simply, such interactions weld us together as a group.
What are we learning now?
First of all, we all learn very quickly. That's great news too, especially that we can learn together. We have to bring the things together, the fears and the necessities from which we isolate ourselves and our longing to stay in social contact.
We are currently learning to change and adapt our norms and values, and we notice that certain things that we do are not taken for granted at all, but have been lost to us: namely, analog, social contact, good relationships, the exchange of Person to person, through whom we can ultimately perceive ourselves.
Why is closeness so important?
Proximity determines behavior; we distinguish between spatial, functional and emotional proximity. We are used to defining closeness in terms of spatial closeness. But now we have to talk about the function of closeness so that in the end, emotional closeness remains possible even at a distance.
To do this, we have to define, we are already doing, what is important to us as a common goal, for example solidarity across spaces and distances. If we want the same thing, that brings us together.
Could the pandemic spark a social revolution?
Revolution is a bit too big for me as a term. Psychology is not about revolution, but about evolution. But the crisis can be a starting point for a move towards more solidarity.
Arno Deister, 63 years old, is the chief physician of the Center for Psychosocial Medicine at the Itzehoe Clinic in Schleswig-Holstein. He is also past president of the German Society for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, Psychosomatics and Neurology.
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