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During a Time of Social Distancing, Practice Psychological Distancing for Your Mental Heath

There is a theory in psychology known as the construal level theory of psychological distance. It has to do with how we construct mental models of future events. The short version of this theory is that the closer an event is in the future, the more we think about the event in terms of details and specific contextual features. Whereas the further the event is out in the future, the more likely we are to think about it abstractly and in less detail. Hold on to this theory for a moment, I will circle back.

One month ago today was March 2, 2020. On that day, I had a meeting at the Inn at Villanova to go over details for the Villanova HRD 40th Anniversary Networking Reception. It was also the first Monday of our Spring 2 classes and that evening, I had the pleasure of welcoming two dozen new students into Villanova HRD at our new student orientation. These two activities are two of my favorite aspects of my job, coordinating events and working with students.

Fast forward one month, I'm sitting in my newly converted home office, aka my guest room, typing this blog post while trying to ignore the news, social media, and stock market. A lot can change in a month, and a lot has. We are currently facing a global pandemic with COVID-19 threatening our health, the health care system, our financial systems, and for me personally, my mental health. Every day is a struggle to stay positive, focus on the things I can control, and not let myself get too caught up in predictions that are uncertain and unknown.


That space, that psychological distance, is helping me focus on the things that are positive while distancing myself from the things I can't control.

--Bethany J. Adams, MA, SHRM-SCP


According to Dr. Lynn Bufka, a psychologist and expert on stress and anxiety with the American Psychological Association, "no one knows how long this pandemic will last, or how long people’s lives will feel upended. Combined with the stress of job loss, mounting debt, household strains or even not being able to blow off steam at the gym, people may increasingly feel frustrated, bored, angry or confused."

I am definitely feeling all of those things, not to mention scared. It is reassuring to know I am not alone in those feelings and I know that finding opportunities to express my emotions in healthy ways is good for my well-being and my work productivity. (I recently gave a TED talk on the subject of bringing your emotions to work, back before social distancing.)

The CDC recently put out special information on COVID-19 and beyond the expected specifics on symptoms and testing, they discuss the impact on daily life, stress, and coping during this time.

"It is natural to feel stress, anxiety, grief, and worry during and after a disaster. Everyone reacts differently, and your own feelings will change over time. Notice and accept how you feel. Taking care of your emotional health during an emergency will help you think clearly and react to the urgent needs to protect yourself and your family. Self-care during an emergency will help your long-term healing." One of the first things they suggest to support your mental health during this time is taking breaks from watching, reading, or listening to the news.

Okay, let's circle back to the construal level theory of psychological distance. Remember, the closer events are in the future, the more we think about the details. COVID-19 is here. We are all at home, social distancing, and there is not an end in sight to the health and economic concerns. Since we are so close to what is happening, we are all focusing on the details: the number of cases that increase each day, the number of deaths, the percent the stock market goes down, the number of unemployment claims that go up, and the next news story that comes out. These details leave us little space for breaks for our mental health.

So, I'm using a part of the construal level theory to play a psychological game with myself. Research tells us that "as psychological distance increases, construals become more abstract, and as level of abstraction increase, the perception of psychological distance too increases." Aka, I'm tricking myself into feeling further away from all of this than I might be in reality. If you create psychological distance, you create abstraction, which creates the perception of more psychological distance.

That space, that psychological distance, is helping me focus on the things that are positive --like the parts of my job I enjoy, or the extra time with my boyfriend at home, or the beautiful nature blooming around me I usually miss-- while distancing myself from the things I can't control. It is easier said than done and some days I am better at it than others. But one day at a time, and we are all in this together.


Bethany J. Adams, MA, SHRM-SCP is an Associate Director in the Graduate HRD Program at Villanova University. Learn more about her here and connect with her on twitter @bethanyjadams. The photos in this post are from Bethany's instagram.

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