People who had difficult childhood events may be struggling with mental health during pandemic, researchers say

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A clinical psychologist at NUI Galway says self-compassion and hope are key to mental wellbeing amid Covid-19.

PEOPLE WHO EXPERIENCED difficult events as children may be struggling with their mental health more than others during the pandemic, a research team has theorised.

A study in NUI Galway is researching how people are coping with the effects of Covid-19 and whether experiencing difficult events during their childhood has an impact on their current wellbeing.

For adults who had challenging childhoods, coping with the pandemic may be harder because of the negative emotions it causes to resurface.

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to investigate the measures being taken to tackle a pandemic-induced mental health crisis in Ireland. You can help fund them here.

Clinical psychologist-in-training Hilary Groarke and Dr Jonathan Egan, deputy director of NUI Galway’s Doctor of Psychological Science in Clinical Psychology programme, recently launched the study and are surveying adults around Ireland.

Speaking to The Journal, Dr Egan said the researchers want to see how well people are coping and what their coping mechanisms are during the pandemic.

If someone has experienced neglect during childhood, this can trigger higher levels of stress, depression, or difficulty adjusting to a new environment, which affects the “blueprint” people carry for how to work through life.

When difficulties come up in the present day that bring back old, negative memories, people can start to feel a numbness or loneliness and be cut off from their emotions, Dr Egan said.

“We start to withdraw a bit and not access things which would bring our vitality up, and that’s amplified in the pandemic when we can’t access things that bring us joy and that we share with other people,” he said.

“We reckon that will increase a person’s general stress, headaches, things such as maybe IBS will get worse, headaches will get worse, neck pains, back pains.”

If people can’t access externally supportive environments, they may turn inwards and feel a sense of numbness.

“It’s like you’ve turned off the heat in the house,” Dr Egan said. “They have a sense of ‘meh’, a sense of ‘I exist and I’m going to go through this pandemic’, but it’s like they’ve turned themselves off.” 

If you access anger, you should feel an increase in energy and an increase in sense of self. If you have a good cry, you should have a sense of relief.”

“If you feel joy or happiness, you should feel a bit more warmth around the upper body and a sense of self.” 

A useful indicator of whether you are coping well is if you can feel that sense of self increase, or if your sense of self is decreasing.

To try to help themselves, something that people can do during the pandemic is practice self-compassion.

“Some people, when the world is going wrong, they kind of go, okay, this is the world’s fault. But other people, when the world is going wrong, they start to blame themselves,” Dr Egan said.

“They have a strong internal critic, a critic on the shoulder which gives out to them, and the more it doesn’t work, the more it shouts, and it causes a mild depression and they become irritable people in themselves,” he said.

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To counter those feelings, Dr Egan recommends that people practice being actively compassionate with themselves.

Some ways this can be tried is through focusing on compassion while meditating or doing yoga or mindfulness to calm the body and dampen that internal critic.

On a wider scale, giving people a reason to be hopeful will be crucial for supporting their wellbeing, Dr Egan said.

On a public level, a political level, hope needs to be garnered.”

“You’re not going to be able to get that initiation, that ability to get moving again, from the immobilised position – psychologically and physically – unless you have a sense of hope.”

Around 800 people have participated in the study’s online questionnaire so far, with researchers hoping to reach a target of 1,500.

The questionnaire is due to close at the start of April and results are expected to be ready to publish by around the start of summer.

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