After nine weeks of physical distancing, it seems clear that we are entering a period reminiscent of what researchers refer to as the Third Quarter Phenomenon (TQP). For individuals living in space, submarines, and Arctic research facilities, TQP is characterized by agitation, irritability, depressed mood, and decreased morale in the third quarter of periods of social isolation. These findings are particularly informative today.
Initially, in response to sheltering in place orders, panic and preparation prevailed. Once people had settled in, a certain sort of honeymoon phase commenced. The novelty of staying home combined with the collective push, shared largely in social media, to find meaningful and productive ways to pass the time, led people to feel oddly calm. Now, as we face uncertainty about whether or not to alter our distancing routines, symptoms of TQP are becoming evident.
If COVID is a marathon (not a sprint) with a course and finish line that are constantly changing, it is important for us to identify and address the very real symptoms that we, as individuals and communities, are facing. We must explore how each of these TQP symptoms may manifest in ourselves and intentionally work through them in order to tolerate the ability to delay, activate self-soothing, and engage in critical thinking about how to handle prolonged isolation in the service of public health. The following descriptions and ideas for working through are offered to this end.
Agitation. Agitation refers to a state of nervous “excitement” or anxiety. When agitated, we feel keyed up and on edge, possibly hyper-vigilant, looking for reasons to be worried or fixes for our anxiety. To relieve agitation:
- Name your feelings and grieve your losses. Agitation is often a product of a stew of unidentified emotions. Name and list all of the losses and feelings that you’re experiencing. Look for themes. Process with someone. Burn the list of losses, using this as a ceremony of sorts for letting go.
- Get serious about self-soothing. Too often we try to distract ourselves from our feelings of anxiety rather than actually soothing our selves. Find actions that will lower your blood pressure and usher in calm. Deep breathing, slow mindful walks, baths/showers, and listening to calming music are places to start.
- Try grounding/breathing exercises. Box breathing and grounding (stand on the ground, rock back and forth to find center, then imagine deep roots growing from your feet, delivering grounding and nutrients up and into your body) are both helpful for relieving agitation.
Irritability. When we feel irritable, we feel as though we’ve lost a sense of insulation between ourselves and others and our experiences and responses to them. Everything feels close to the surface and we are highly reactive. Research links intolerance, grouchiness, frustration, psychological tension, and touchiness to irritability. To work through irritability:
- Take breaks. Find ways to take time away from stressors. Even 5-minute breaks will work. Go for a walk without your phone. Plan a no-work staycation day. Engage a hobby. If you have young children, institute a time of quiet rest for them so that you can have a few moments for yourself each day.
- Do a thought and feeling dump. Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and write down every thought and feeling that comes to you. Once finished, dispose of the paper, signaling your brain that you are starting fresh. Return to this practice as often as you can.
- Tend to your body. Do some aerobic exercise. Use foam rollers or tennis balls to perform self-massage/acupressure. Practice diaphragmatic breathing. Get outside.
Depression/Fluctuation in Mood. It’s normal to feel “blue” when faced with a completely disorienting reality. Owning, normalizing, and working through these feelings can keep them from turning into full-blown depression.
If you are experiencing prolonged low mood with excessive guilt, loss of pleasure, sleep/eating changes, and hopelessness for more than two weeks, it’s crucial that you reach out to a mental health professional. If you are, however, experiencing “blue” days or fluctuating moods, here are some tips. To stabilize mood:
- Exercise. A combination of aerobic exercise along with stretching is particularly helpful.
- Meditate. Mindfulness meditation has been proven to help with mood. Find a meditation that you like, practice it online a few times, then try it on your own. Regular practice will enhance effectiveness.
- Try Therapy. Therapists everywhere are using telehealth. If you feel a sense of real struggle, don’t wait to seek help.
Decreased Morale. Morale is defined as “the confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time.” As we have seen, the manifestation of community morale as expressed by staying home, wearing masks, washing hands, physical distancing, and applauding our front line workers each evening has flattened the curve as well as raised our spirits. Morale is an important energetic force that helps people make choices for the good of the group. When morale is high, we are more likely to be dedicated to communal goals. To improve morale:
- Tend to self-care. Care for others can only grow out of care and respect for the self. Identify a few things that are deeply caregiving and restorative to you (e.g: naps, walks, working on a fun project or hobby). Reserve time in your calendar for one of these activities as often as possible.
- Get perspective. Tap into personal grit and resilience. We have done hard things before and we can do them now. Remembering that our actions are powerful and are making history can help us stay the course. This will not last forever.
- Be as generous as you're able. Once you’ve tended to your self-care, do what you can to offer encouragement, help, and a morale boost to others. Get creative. Volunteer for a cause you care about. Have a meal delivered to someone. Write thank-you letters to health care workers. Leave chalked encouragement on sidewalks. Find your way of being generous and keep at it.
Bechtel R.B., Berning A. (1991) The Third-Quarter Phenomenon: Do People Experience Discomfort After Stress Has Passed?. In: Harrison A.A., Clearwater Y.A., McKay C.P. (eds) From Antarctica to Outer Space. Springer, New York, NY