The Dartmoor Dance

20 April 2020  |  Rich M

Explanations and implications of the psychological pressures of the pandemic

In November 2005, a young man called Tig was 13 weeks into basic training for the Royal Marines. His troop had been on exercise in boggy Dartmoor for 5 days. After an exhausting day, the wannabe Marines were relieved to set up camp for the night and rest. Their respite lasted 60 minutes. They were informed by their training team that they were now doing a night march to a location 21km away leaving in 5 minutes.

Incredulous and forlorn, they wrenched themselves out of their sleeping bags, took off their dry clothes and put their wet clothes back on. Tig had reached breaking point and ‘refused to soldier’. He was immediately relieved of his rifle, removed from the exercise and later court martialled. Once the drama of a man refusing to soldier had subsided, the training team walked the troops 800m in a lumbering circle to arrive back at the original position. No long night march; a test of psychological resilience. A quality that society needs right now. 

“Humans intuitively don’t like uncertainty because the health implications of it eventually kill you”

Great expectations

The Royal Marines talk of ‘dislocation of expectation’. Indeed, much of military training is intuitively organised around this principle. In short, don’t allow recruits to know how long something will last; continually move the goalposts to dash their expectations; create an environment of perpetual uncertainty. This all tests mental fortitude. Not only is it required for soldiering, but also to survive the pandemic with your sanity intact.

Still ill

Citizens around the world in isolation are finding it gruelling. The obvious worries are for the physical and financial health of ourselves and our families. But, look deeper and there is a subplot that undermines people’s ability to deal with this situation: psychological discomfort. Psychological discomfort takes many forms. In the context of the pandemic – and our work – consider three types below. People differ in how sensitive they are to each of these things. The pandemic is exerting pressure on all three at once.

1. Uncertainty

What would happen if you literally didn’t know where your next meal was coming from? Or, whether or not you could meet your next mortgage/rent payment? Serious stress. 

There is little certainty on when the infection curve will flatten or how long we will be paying off the debt for. During uncertainty, our bodies produce a preparatory stress response (cortisol inhibits bodily systems not needed for movement). But it is not designed to last long. If uncertainty persists, temporary marshalling becomes permanent: acute health issues become chronic. Humans intuitively don’t like uncertainty because the health implications of it eventually kill you.

However, with every century that passes our species makes noble attempts to reduce uncertainty. So much so that when uncertainty strikes – as strike it will – the entangled global economy furiously flaps to cope. A silver lining may be that periodic bursts of uncertainty are positive for the global personality because it discourages complacency and helps us evaluate and upgrade our operating systems.

“Economists will put a glass eye to sleep in their attestation that more individual choice is a good thing”

2. Lack of information

How frustrating is the boss or colleague who conceals information? Or a train company that doesn’t update the arrivals board for your train? 

People can handle bad news; they abhor no news. In the absence of timely and credible information, we naturally think negatively as a survival mechanism. The information that does exist, however, is often under-explained, incomplete or contradictory. It is a Sisyphean task to disseminate information quickly and accurately to all. The whole country has undergone a digital transformation that would have taken two decades in normal times. In future this should lead to more connectedness and better access to information. Verily, leaders have improved their selfie-video game and started communicating with their workers en masse. This change should endure.

3. Lack of control

Why do people lay down their lives in defence of personal liberty? 

Restricting basic autonomies from people is properly called incarceration. Yet, as of April 15th 2020, a third of the global population has had their most basic right removed. Let alone their ability to control their livelihoods, careers or education. The rise of the gig economy and self-employment point to people wanting more autonomy over their affairs. The crisis will accelerate this. Economists will put a glass eye to sleep in their attestation that more individual choice is a good thing.

Hand in glove

In many domains, pressure stifles creativity. In others, it is the catalyst for it. Tim Harford has written extensively about how confusion and disruption lead to people adapting, improvising and creating. Mercedes F1 now make ventilators; Managing Partners at Law firms appreciate that lawyers can work from home after all; Individuals realise that a vegetable garden isn’t that hard to create and keep. Uncertainty abounds; as does opportunity. Individual attitudes to adversity predict the ability to adapt and, ultimately, succeed.

You can’t always get what you want

Unfortunately, there are not many quick fixes to combat the effects of these psychological pressures.  Naturally as you read this, you may be subconsciously hoping that I reveal some bombproof way to cope with this uncertainty (I don’t, but would if I could). Practicing Stoicism or Buddhism would certainly insulate the mind somewhat from high peaks and low troughs. Based on the three themes above, a sure place for any individual to start would be to 1) Stop lusting after certainty. Acceptance will stand you in better stead 2) Do your best to educate yourself with information that enlightens and uplifts. Clue: don’t binge on news. 3) Control the controllables in your environment. 

The pandemic is inflicting industrial scale dislocation of expectation on us. We don’t know when it’s going to end and it’s deeply uncomfortable for many. Unlike Tig on Dartmoor, none of us can opt out either. In which case, probably best to take a deep breath and start psychologically marching.

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