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Psychologist 'still waiting on data' to see isolation's impact during pandemic

'Reframe the situation and adopt a more positive mindset'
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Posted at 12:31 AM, Mar 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-15 00:32:11-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- For more than a year now and in an effort to try and curb the spread COVID-19, health experts have urged everyone to limit their social bubbles and personal interactions. An area social psychologist said it's important to keep in mind what those important safety measures have meant for our social well-being.

Dr. Donelson Forsyth is a social and personality psychologist at the Jepson School at the University of Richmond. He spoke to CBS 6 about the psychological implications of how society was required to operate over the past year.

“We’re still waiting on the data on how people coped and if they coped successfully: levels of depression, anxiety, suicide, long-term, negative emotional consequences caused by the pandemic in general,” Dr. Forsyth said. “I think people realize just how critical social contact was. I don’t think people realized it; it was just taken for granted; it’s the air we breathe.”

He continued: “It’s not just loneliness; it’s not just isolation; it’s more like, well I’m confused by things. I don’t understand issues that are facing me in the world; I have a more difficult time making choices.”

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Dr. Donelson Forsyth

Technology has allowed certain interactions to move into the virtual space. Meetings, classes, and family social gatherings have shifted online. While programs allow us to continue to connect with each other, Forsyth said in using these platforms we miss out on the non-verbal forms of communication that help us regulate our emotional responses.

“That part of our minds is busy processing information, it’s making decisions about our emotions: how we should feel. It’s influencing us all the time. It’s really frustrated by Zoom,” he said.

Although it is too early to draw many specific clinical conclusions about what the past year has meant for the psychological health of large populations, according to Forsyth, he has noticed a general “apathy” setting in more than a year into the pandemic.

“So, our emotions have become very flat, and you know that’s not good. That’s one of the key ingredients for depression, when our emotional experiences have damped down so much, they’re neither positive nor negative,” he said. “I think it’s because of this whole year of a reduction in access to the information that our emotional systems require to create our emotional responses.”

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With vaccine distribution accelerating and overall numbers in Virginia improving, health experts have said now is not the time let up on health precautions too soon. Forsyth agrees with that assessment and says those who are struggling with “pandemic fatigue” might try focusing on the horizon instead of the emotions of the moment.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel. We’re going to get there; people are going to get vaccinated. There could be a return to normalcy by the fall. Just remember that; just escape the hum-drum dullness of where you are now,” he said. “This is a time to escape this apathy, this dullness, and use our individual resources to reframe the situation and adopt a more positive mindset.”

Click here to read more about Dr. Forsyth’s published works.