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DR MAX THE MIND DOCTOR: We can all learn the life lessons in lockdown

With some elements of the closing expected to decline from Monday, now is a good time to start thinking about the past seven weeks and thinking about the “positives” we can get from the experience.

That is not to say that the difficulties people have faced or their impact are not diminishing. The overall closure has been incredibly hard on millions of people and will have profound financial, emotional and psychological effects in the coming years. But clinicians often talk about “Post-traumatic growth.”

It describes the phenomenon through which traumatic events, struggles with setbacks and pressures can be beneficial to many people in the long run. It helps them develop new skills and draws on qualities they may not have been aware of.

It can lead them to challenge the status quo, assess and evaluate their lives, and make permanent changes. Many patients have told me – almost guilty – that they enjoyed some aspects of the lockdown or found to their surprise that it had some benefits for their lives.

Dr. Max Pemberton discusses the mental side of this week's closing in Mail

Dr. Max Pemberton discusses the mental side of this week’s closing in Mail

And I find that I agree with them. Professionally, I have seen positive changes in healthcare. There are fewer meetings, they are more focused and shorter, and there is generally less red tape and bureaucracy due to the sense of urgency caused by Covid-19.

With so many staff members because of Covid-19 or a suspected infection, more junior staff have been stepped up and – by taking on a higher role – revitalized services with new energy and thinking.

I hope these changes will be permanent. It got me thinking about what good things I can do when I lock. The first is a less busy diary. Before I was blocked I would book and double book myself professionally and personally and eventually rush from engagement to engagement.

Suddenly there was nowhere to go and no one to be seen. It took a while, but I enjoyed whole evenings with not much to do, perhaps best summed up by the beautiful Italian phrase ‘La dolce far niente’ – the sweetness of doing nothing. I also rediscovered the love of reading and listening to music.

I learned that I don’t need social media with its endless bickering and political scoring. I no longer have Twitter on my smartphone and am amazed at the difference it has made.

I no longer constantly check for tweets to retweet or tweet myself. I like to think I’ve become more patient by queuing at supermarkets, and I value nature more.

From now on I am an avid defender of public spaces such as parks and gardens, which are essential for our physical and mental health. And I have developed a strong appreciation for the kindness I have seen in recent weeks, small and great deeds.

It is an inherent human quality, but is rarely shown. The Covid-19 crisis has made me – perhaps all of them – less materialistic; to re-evaluate what really matters and to focus on our friends and family.

Not being able to see those we love most has reminded us how important they are to us. As a colleague said to me last week, “I’ll never roll my eyes to see my mom again!”

We also started talking to each other. Modern life had not only become hectic, but also quite lonely. Many didn’t even know their neighbor, but that has changed either through WhatsApp community groups or meeting others as we clap in front of the NHS every Thursday night.

The virus has given us all an excuse to get to know people in our community, albeit remotely. And what a wonderful legacy from a terrible time this will be if we continue to recognize and watch one another.

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Dame Vera Lynn, the ‘Forces Sweetheart’ who was central to VE Day celebrations this week, has compared Covid-19 to the ‘brutal, deadly’ Nazis and called for a VE Day-style national holiday when we finally hit. Well, I will definitely raise a glass for that. Such events are psychologically important because they define the past and the future. They help us draw a line below what we’ve been through. Things may not go back to how they were – at least not immediately – but to help us all move forward, we need good, old-fashioned knees! We deserve it.

Covid conspiracies are just fairytales

The coronavirus pandemic has been fertile ground for a series of wild conspiracy theories: is it said that the ‘man-made’ virus came from an American bio-weapons laboratory, or was it a Chinese research laboratory? Others claim it has been intentionally “leaked” as part of a plot to destroy China, or perhaps the US, or perhaps the West at large by causing economic disasters. A hypothesis revolves around the slow response of the British government to the crisis and suggests that it wanted to reduce the number of very old people. There is no doubt that things could have been handled better here, from the speed of locking to the availability of testing and contact tracking and access to protective equipment. But to suggest that ministers decided to ream the elderly – many of whom were the stronghold of the Tory vote in 2019, by the way – is absolutely insane. Yet such conspiracy theories address the deep psychological need many people have to view the world in black and white. It’s like a pantomime or fairytale, with goodies and bad guys. Yes, it is an immature worldview, but it is comforting because it removes doubt and avoids facing the world as a very uncertain place.

What a hypocrite Professor Neil Ferguson is! The government adviser, whose mathematical modeling predicted that up to 500,000 Britons could die in the coronavirus epidemic and caused this general blockage, resigned this week after it was found that his married lover has visited his home at least twice recently. Ferguson defended himself by saying he thought he was “immune” after developing Covid-19 symptoms and self-isolation for two weeks. He clearly thought he was also “immune” to the rules the rest of us adhere to – an attitude typical of many high-achieving academics I’ve come across. In the future, we should listen less to ‘theoretical modellers’ like Ferguson, and more to scientists experienced with real people and their problems.

Why technology will not replace real life

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’m tired of video conferencing or even just chatting with friends on Zoom and FaceTime. It’s just not the same as seeing someone in person. We think this is a modern problem, a result of the digital revolution, but what we’re experiencing today was first conceived nearly 100 years ago in E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, a short story that I rediscovered in lockdown. And a century after it was first published, I’m struck by the author’s creepy prescription. The story is set in a future world dominated by technology. People live in pods underground and only communicate with one another through what we know as instant messaging and video conferencing. The almighty “Machine” provides for all physical and spiritual needs. But over time, people forget that they made the Machine to serve them. Instead, they become subservient to it and begin to worship it. But then defects appear in the Machine and its eventual crash brings about the end of civilization. The human race cannot function without the Machine. Forster’s underlying message is now of chilling relevance. He shows that it is our direct experience and commitment to the world that is of value. It is not necessarily technology that endangers humanity, but rather our dependence on it. Once we’re free to see family and friends again, I think we’ll see technology – Zoom, Facetime, etc. – for what it is: fine if nothing else, but no substitute for real interaction.

Dr Max prescribes …

Ever wanted to study at Harvard? This is your chance. Many institutions in August started offering free courses. All they need is an email address and an open mind. From the writings of Judaism to the foundations of neuroscience, there is a dizzying array to choose from. I take one at the birth of opera for no other reason than I don’t know anything about opera – right! For a modest fee, Harvard will even send you a certificate upon completion.

online-learning.harvard.edu/catalog/free

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