Notes & Essays

Capitalism and COVID-19: Mental Health in a Time of Lockdown

The writer says he's felt better during lockdown than he has in a while. That says something about capitalism's relationship with mental health.
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This is first and foremost a personal essay, about my own experiences. While I plan to make some broader observations, it must be understood that I speak from a privileged position. I’m young, have a roof over my head, food to eat, and a supportive family. COVID-19 has been most devastating to those already in very vulnerable positions, attacking their health, security, freedom and dignity. Ultimately, my story must be understood with this broader context in mind.

For most of my life I have struggled with depression and anxiety. For the past four years I have struggled rather acutely. At a time that I thought my career was peaking, I suffered severe burnout that would be the catalyst for my biggest, hardest, longest-lasting crash so far. 

In trying to recover and make my way back to myself, so much of my life has changed. I have all but left behind the career path I put 15 years of my life into, the path that was my explicit passion since my teenage years. My only serious long-term relationship endured a rocky ending after five years. I’ve (largely unsuccessfully) tried a number of different psychiatric medications, and cycled through a number of different types of debilitating symptoms. But I’ve also discovered some things that can help, and some things about my life that I would like to change. As trite as it sounds, exercise is now my first-line anti-depressant.

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When lockdown was announced, my primary concern was losing my two weekly soccer games. As I’ve rebuilt my life, these games have become my regular source of upliftment. More than that, I have crafted much of my routine around them. As someone who has freelanced for most of his life, one of my explicit objectives has been to seek full-time work to try and create a greater sense of stability in my life.

But coming from a niche industry like esports and looking for full-time work outside of that industry has been difficult. In the past year I’ve applied for over 100 jobs, interviewing for just a handful along the way. In the meantime I have continued to put food on the table by taking on several smaller freelance jobs. As a result, my soccer games really have been the one routine part of my life, holding my weeks together. 

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It thus came as a surprise to me that lockdown has seen a significant improvement in my mental health. 

Early on during the outbreak, when lockdown was still a Chinese exclusive, as the word pandemic began to float around and the reality began to dawn on us all, a lot of people started to panic. I noticed quickly that I wasn’t one of them. I wondered why—given my normal state of anxiety—I wasn’t anxious about this catastrophic state of affairs. Consulting some of my online communities I discovered that it wasn’t just me. A lot of ordinarily anxious people have experienced a surprising sense of calm about COVID-19.

As a game-obsessed, 10-years-into-therapy, philosophically trained nerd, my curiosity was insatiable. Over the past month I have wrestled with the question over and over. Why are a lot of usually anxious people seemingly immune to this very obvious, objectively good reason to be anxious? Below I will go through some of the reasons I have come up with.

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Vindication

This seems kind of childish, but it’s come up often enough with people I’ve spoken to that it felt dishonest not to include it. As a chronically anxious person, there is a sense that you’ve been telling people all along that we were all doomed. Why am I regularly disabled by some kind of invisible dread? Because the world we live in is a disaster waiting to happen. So, when the disasters actually start happening, there’s a certain sense of vindication which feels not quite good but at least a little bit reassuring. All my worry wasn’t for nothing! (or was it?)

Inevitability

Another common sentiment I’ve encountered among my various anxious compatriots is that there is something calming about inevitability. Anxiety gets a lot of its power from uncertainty and in a twisted way, inevitability undermines uncertainty. It sucks that the thing we know is going to happen is a really bad thing, but that doesn’t change that we know it’s going to happen. COVID-19 has left little room to doubt (despite certain US politicians showing great tenacity in this regard). It is here, it is happening, and it is all-encompassing. Why would I worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow when I already know what’s going to happen tomorrow?

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Existential dread is normalized

Combining the above two factors we arrive at a third composite factor. Because I was “right” to be worried all along, and it’s impossible to deny that we should be worried, now everybody is some degree of worried about what’s going to happen. There is something very reassuring about understanding that the way you feel is normal. Our therapists go to great lengths to convince us that everything we feel is normal.

But lets face it, it’s a lot easier to actually accept it when everyone around us is also feeling the thing we feel. Depressed and anxious people are regularly confronted with a kind of desync between how we feel about the world and how the world (supposedly) actually is. Awareness of this fact adds an extra layer of self-judgment. Not only am I scared of something nobody else can see, I’m now aware that this makes me weird. It’s easy to justify hating yourself when you can pin everything on yourself. Everyone else is doing fine, the world isn’t the problem, I am the problem. 

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But now that everyone is experiencing existential dread, it makes me feel normal. In fact, better than normal, because I’ve spent my whole life preparing for this particular normal. I have learned scores of coping mechanisms. In the same way that one can feel (secretly) comforted in a new job when realizing colleagues are struggling more than oneself, there is a twisted calm arrived at by noticing that everyone else is experiencing the dread for the first time while she and I are already on a first-name basis. 

Internal lives

To what extent a person has something like an “internal life” partly just depends on how introverted they are. But it also depends on how anxious they are. I have noticed that a lot of people who aren’t used to spending much time inside their heads have been very uncertain about what to do with themselves during lockdown.

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Similar to the above, even though we’ve mostly hated all the time we’ve spent with ourselves, we are at least well practiced in doing it. We know ways to distract ourselves, ways to regulate the flow of internal dialogue. We have learned how to turn the tap on and off. It seems that this is a useful skill to have, and probably one of many arguments in favor of therapy being a beneficial process for everyone. 

The world is slower

This last reason was also the impetus for me to write this essay at all and, to me, it feels like it ultimately contains many of the other reasons. You might have noticed that some of the above discussions are more about being calm in the face of COVID-19 than they are about lockdown. I was, however, pretty clear in saying that lockdown has been good for my mental health. This in spite of the fact of losing the activity which both anchors my routine and functions as the highlight of my week, every week. 

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Ultimately it boils down to this: under lockdown, I have not had to constantly endure a barrage of capitalism. For the past year, the biggest stress in my life has been trying to find a full-time job. At a basic level, the stress comes from failing to achieve something I’m trying to achieve. But why do I want this job? Earlier on I said it was to help stabilize my routine, and improve my mental health. But I also said I’ve managed to find other ways to do that, while still searching for work. 

The truth is that I have a hard time valuing myself when I’m not working full time. When I’m not being productive. But what does productive even mean? In the past two weeks I have finished two massive epic fantasy novels. Books that had been sitting on my shelf for over a year, that I was never finding the time, motivation, or focus to get to. Is that not productive? I am doing new kinds of exercise, cooking more interesting food and working on an online course. I am playing single player games again for the first time since I was a kid.

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Before lockdown, I already had the time to do all these things. But I did not have permission to do them. As a young, educated, qualified person not working full time, I existed in a constant state of failure. Every moment of every day, I was failing to satisfy capitalism’s criteria for productivity. Lockdown has allowed me to give myself permission.

I had an interview a few weeks ago for a very promising job. The interviewers were very impressed with me, but said it was unlikely they would get back to me before at least six weeks' time. Ordinarily, this would be very frustrating. Initially, it was. But then I realized: that is how long everyone is taking to get anything done at the moment. The entire world is moving slower than it usually does. And that means I get to give myself permission to live without feeling guilty about not being optimally productive with my every waking moment.

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Much has been said about what kind of “normal” we should be returning to as we look ahead, towards a time when we’ve vanquished the virus for good. What I’ve realized is that I would like normal to be slower. Granted, not everybody wants that. And, much more importantly, many people do not have that option. Those struggling to survive do not have the luxury to take some time just to be—they have to keep doing, navigating our economic system to try find ways to keep breathing.

That strikes me as unfair. As far as I can tell, there is no moral imperative for the world to function at a certain speed. People should be able to slow down their lives if they want to. The imperative that we all feel to constantly do, achieve, succeed, is a construction of capitalism. And it is, I think, a reason that capitalism is directly at odds with mental health.

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Anthony Hodgson is an esports specialist with a background in analytic philosophy. He coached Dota 2 in the Philippines in 2017. This was originally a post on Medium.

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