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Psychologist and Best-Selling Author Dr. Andrea Bonior on Productivity, Mental Health and Conspiracy Theories During Lockdown

andrea bonior

As the U.S. enters its second month of stay-at-home orders during the spread of coronavirus, self-isolation and uncertainty continue to take a toll on emotional and mental health. Thousands of people have died from the virus, while many have lost their jobs, can no longer afford rent, and are continuously questioning their safety and the safety of loved ones. The U.S. is not only in the midst of a global pandemic, but is also facing a mental health crisis, as millions of Americans are suffering while under quarantine.

To better understand how the coronavirus and the nationwide lockdown have affected both short and long term mental health, Mediaite spoke to Dr. Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the new book Detox Your Thoughts. Bonior specializes in anxiety, depression, and relationship issues and has served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirteen years.

People are trying to stay busy while under stay-at-home orders, but sometimes that’s easier said than done — any tips for people who aren’t feeling motivated or are just too anxious to be productive right now? 

I’d say it’s really important to reexamine what “productivity” even means. Anxiety is the norm in these abnormal times. Now, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use healthy coping mechanisms to manage it (like protecting our sleep, getting daylight, fresh air, and movement, building structure into our day, talking about our feelings to others, pursuing creative outlets that nourish our brains). But it does mean that we have to be flexible and compassionate with ourselves in how we measure our output during this time. We have been under an extraordinary amount of psychological threat for weeks and weeks now, where even little, everyday decisions put us on edge and make us go into all kinds of mental calculations about our safety, and where we are going without a lot of the basic joys, comforts, and stress relievers that we previously may have taken for granted. That is exhausting. Sometimes, being “productive” means just getting through the day and allowing ourselves some grace. There is a lot to learn about ourselves, and our own resilience, if we’re willing to be patient—and we can grow from it. It doesn’t have to mean conquering a checklist.  

Do you predict forms of PTSD once the country begins to reopen? Do you suspect long term impacts on mental health?

I do have real concerns about that. What bothers me is that we’re talking about reopening as if we’ll flip a switch and things will go back to “normal.” In reality, mental health crises — from anxiety to suicide rates to overdoses — have been increasing for some time, pre-pandemic. And it never seems to get enough attention. The stress of this virus and the economic and social fallout from it is only going to make everything worse, and we know this. So why isn’t there more planning and preparation and funding to try to mitigate it? We need mental health screenings just like we need testing for the virus. In my mind, we should be planning for that just like we planned for the onslaught of the virus itself. 

How do you think lockdowns have affected mental health care? Are people getting the attention they need despite being isolated? 

It really varies. I have seen some hopeful things — like in some ways, this has opened up the world of teletherapy to people who otherwise didn’t know it existed, and it allows people to be able to access therapy when they maybe otherwise couldn’t have fit in the drive, or the time away from their home or work. I’d like to think that it has forced a lot of us providers to be innovative and get more familiar with the best ways to do this, and to do good work. And it’s forced insurance companies to think more seriously about covering it. That said, I also really worry about the lack of a physical and private office space being a problem in some cases. What if you are in a controlling relationship and your partner may now eavesdrop on you from the other side of the wall? What if you used to be able to anonymously go to a 12-step meeting on your lunch hour, and now you’re worried your roommate will find out? What if the technology fails at a crucial moment in the session, and the therapist has reason to be worried about the client’s safety but can’t reach them? So there are some bright spots and some concerns, for sure. 

Why do you think people are hanging on to conspiracy theories during this pandemic? 

Fear disrupts our judgment, pretty significantly. We’re not always our most thoughtful, reasonable selves when we’re significantly frightened. All the usual cognitive biases that explain our tendency toward conspiracy theories get heightened even more when our nervous systems are on high alert: it’s harder to think through our reactions, and we become more impulsive in jumping to conclusions. Plus, some of these videos and memes spread so quickly that they are enticing because they make us feel part of something big—they offer the antidote to the loneliness of lockdown, by making us feel like we are connecting with others by being “in on” some special knowledge. And that’s not even to mention the ways that the algorithms of social media give us more and more extreme of individual bubbles of bias that we come to think of as objective fact. When we latch on to an explanation—even an irrational or false one– it’s a way of trying to exert some controllability and predictability over a situation that is otherwise frightening in its uncertainty. 

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