As we enter into the seventh week of isolation across the country many families are finding that social and physical isolation has had a greater impact on their relationships than they could ever have imagined. Tempers are flaring more than usual. Many people are finding themselves uncharacteristically (and often inexplicably) angry and frustrated, and the only people around to direct those emotions at are their family members.
Since COVID-19 isolation and social distancing measures started in Canada many jurisdictions have seen a spike in domestic violence allegations (see Link 1 below). Many experts are predicting that when school resumes we are likely to also see a spike in allegations of violence against children by parents and caregivers. Even during the current isolation and social distancing measures, adult victims of family violence have the means to report the allegations to the police, but children who are being victimized may not have the opportunity to report what has happened until they are back in a school and speaking to other adults in positions of authority without the presence of their caregivers.
The long term and short-term effects of the current isolation and social distancing measures are not yet fully understood as these are unprecedented measures in modern times but generally there are some issues arising that experts can liken to other situations.
One of the issues that people are dealing with is feelings of loss of control. We as a society are experiencing an unheard of curtailing of our personal freedoms. In addition, we are also in a time of great uncertainty, and for some people, fear regarding our personal health. There is little to nothing that people can do to change these circumstances and many people are feeling as though they suddenly have no control over what is happening with many aspects of their lives. Some people in situations like these will attempt to exert control over other people or exert hyper control over any area of their lives that they feel they do have some control over. People may try to take control back by controlling the lives of their intimate partners or children. Understandably this can cause previously unexperienced relationship conflict. In an attempt to take back some control, some people may attempt to take extreme measures to control any possible exposure to the novel coronavirus. If their intimate partner or children will not accede to their version of what is safe, this too can lead to serious conflicts that one party can see as vital to their survival and/or the survival of their family. It can also be a conflict that person sees as being over the only thing they can control about their current situation.
Another issue that many Canadians are dealing with is loss of income and jobs. This is nothing new generally, but it may be a first for many Canadians, and it can be a compounding factor to the other stressors related to isolation and social distancing.
The effects of isolation itself are well known and studied in other contexts. It is safe to say that the consensus is that social isolation is detrimental to humans. Isolation has been linked to anxiety, depression and cognitive difficulties amongst other issues. Some studies have also linked social isolation to changes in brain chemistry that can cause increases in aggression and fear (see link 2 below).
In addition to this new plethora of challenges Canadians are facing, across all spectrums of age they are also consuming more alcohol since social distancing measures have come into place. Again, the effects of increased and excessive alcohol consumption are well known. At the time of intoxication it can lead to increased aggression, decreased inhibitions and impaired mental functioning. In the aftermath it can lead to increased feelings of anxiety and depression, especially for people already struggling with those types of issues. When increased alcohol is in the mix with the other issues mentioned above it can be a recipe for physical violence to break out, even for people in relationships where it has not been an issue previously.
Even in otherwise prosocial and healthy family relationships this sudden, unexpected and serious change of circumstances is causing a great deal of conflict, sometimes even leading to instances of violence. For many families and relationships that were having struggles to begin with, these new stressors are pushing them over the limits of their capabilities to cope. When people feel themselves getting to the breaking point what makes matters even worse is that there is almost no where to get away any more. A person on the verge of losing their cool can’t walk out to door and go to a movie theater, restaurant or bar to cool down. They can’t go to a trusted friend’s house to vent, stay the night and calm down. They can go for a walk… and for many that will not last long enough to diffuse the situation. And for others who are convinced any amount of outdoor exposure is unsafe, even that may not seem like an option.
If you or your family is experiencing difficulty with anger and conflict due to the effects of isolation there are many mental health professionals who are offering virtual services through video conference or other means. They can be accessed remotely and safely. Counselling can be one-on-one or as a family or couple. A quick on-line search will lead you to contact information for them.
“Be kind, be calm, be safe” and feel empowered to seek help from professionals. These are unprecedented times with unprecedented challenges for our families and our mental health.