On a quiet morning in July, 1518, a lone woman began to dance through the streets of imperial Strasbourg, without any musical accompaniment. She continued to dance for six days and was soon joined by a group of other women. By August, nearly 400 people had been afflicted with this uncontrollable urge to dance beyond the point of exhaustion.
Mass hysteria is a term loosely applied to the collective behaviour of a group of people, marked by intense emotion and an alarming lack of judgement. Such afflictions are believed to be brought on by high levels of psychological stress. In the case of the “dancing plague of 1518”, it was starvation and disease that were the stress factors. Today, of course, one of the largest stressors is the covid-19 pandemic. In the months since its outbreak, the virus has not just taken a physical but a mental toll as well. We have become jaded and weary. Sheltering-in-place has been demanding. And children, the most social of us all, have had to endure a disruption in their routines. The pandemic has come with its economic challenges as well.
This has resulted in disturbed sleep, excessive worrying, a sense of depression and the feeling of being stuck. Some of us have had to cope with grief or the threat of imminent grief. Many with existing psychological conditions have seen a worsening of these. Physical and mental fatigue, it seems, is the new normal.
Add to this set a sense of flu fatigue. While we were painstakingly vigilant at the outset of the pandemic, many of us have let go of that caution as the months have gone by. A socially contagious irrational and callous attitude, much like the mass hysteria of 1518, seems to have come about as we find our neighbours and acquaintances participate in gatherings and celebrations.
To weather us through the pandemic, we need good role models. Long-distance athletes could be one source of inspiration. During any race, there comes a point when even the most seasoned of athletes feels mentally exhausted and weak. When we reach this state, popularly called “hitting the wall”, sports psychologists suggest a number of practices, which can also apply to us as we struggle through this covid-marathon.
Accept that it is okay to feel overwhelmed
Don’t think about the “finish line”, instead turn your attention to getting through the present moment, one breath, one second, one day at a time.
Hydrate and nourish the body
Healthy “self-talk” helps as a coping mechanism. “It hurts. I don’t like it, but I can withstand it,” is one such way to look at things.
Keep moving. You may not be fast or furious, but at least you are moving forward. Human endurance knows no limits. You can do it, and it is worth it. Visualize yourself getting through this pandemic like the tortoise, not the hare. Slow and steady wins the race.
Now all you need to do is train your mind to sustain you through this leg. By doing so, you'll not only slow the spread of the disease, you'll also spread the positive behaviour that will get us all across the finish line.
Radhika Bapat has been a practicing psychologist for the last 14 years and is based out of Pune.