The University of York examined psychological states during the UK lockdown, revealing that external surroundings shape “maladaptive thought processes” – with fewer people able to think about the future when isolated
The UK lockdown created a new way of living, out of necessity.
People had to brace themselves for loneliness, which has been found to change brain structure.
“In the absence of desired social experiences, lonely individuals may be biased towards internally-directed thoughts such as reminiscing or imagining social experiences. We know these cognitive abilities are mediated by the default network brain regions,” said Nathan Spreng from Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital of McGill University.
In a different study looking at suicide survivors, it was found that those with trusted people to speak to were more likely to now be okay.
Philip Baiden, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, School of Social Work, said: “Respondents who had someone to confide in were six times more likely to be in a state of complete mental health.”
Other people had to face a daily risk of infection and death, because they could not afford to isolate. Those living in rented accommodation were more likely to experience negative mental health than those who own homes, linking financial insecurity to isolation feelings. A May 2021 survey found that one in five UK adults felt a consistent symptom of depression during their isolation.
Now, psychologists are investigating mass changes to human thinking and behaviour during the first lockdown. Researchers texted participants at random times during their day over one week, asking them what they had just been thinking about and what they were doing.
The research was conducted by York University, in collaboration with Queen’s University, Canada and the University of Essex.
So, what did they find out?
Surroundings can directly change how a person thinks
Dr Giulia Poerio, co-author and Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Essex said: “Anecdotally people have reported changes in aspects of their mental lives brought about by the pandemic, such as changes in what occupies their thoughts or dreams.
“Our findings are exciting because they show how important our external environment and social interactions are for shaping what is going on internally and suggest that changing our external world could be one way of changing the (mal)adaptive thought patterns that make up so much of our waking lives.”
If social interactions and external environment have such a direct impact on what thought loops help people live their daily lives, there is a possibility for applying these findings to the treatment of mental health issues like depression.
2. Future planning really only happens via positive mental health
Lead author, Brontë McKeown, a PhD Student from the Department of Psychology said: “Normally, people spend a lot of time thinking about other people and planning for the future in their daily lives. We found that both of these thought patterns were disrupted during lockdown.
“We found that future thinking was reduced overall during lockdown, and only seemed to occur at pre-lockdown levels when people were actively engaged in work.”
The lead author further explained that when a person has the capacity for future thinking, they are also generally experiencing positive mental health. The reduction in future planning during the first, most uncertain and isolating lockdown, can be explained by “negative emotional changes” that happened to people.