Published on 22 Oct 2020

How self-distancing can boost your mental health in this age of safe distancing

The Covid-19 pandemic and its devastating impact on public health and the economy has inevitably taken a toll on mental health.

What can we do to cope with this challenging time? One answer to this question lies in finding life’s meaning.

To find meaning in life, we seek to identify the “why” for what we are doing in life and how it helps us experience meaningfulness. It is a powerful source of motivation and well-being.

Life meaning comprises three dimensions: Coherence, purpose, and significance.

Coherence represents our comprehension of life and how it works.

Making sense of our life experiences provides a certain degree of certainty and confidence that we need to navigate through life.

Purpose refers to the aspirations and dreams that we have for the future, and it serves as an anchor of our motivation in life.

Significance is about our sense of the value and importance of our life, and it gives us a sense of “life worth living”.

Although the content of these dimensions may vary from person to person, they represent the core structure of individuals’ life meaning.


Michael Steger, a Colorado State University psychology professor, believes the gloom over Covid-19 stems from its “attack” on these three psychological dimensions of life meaning.

Our sense of coherence is challenged by the sudden and drastic changes in how we interact and communicate with others, work and study, and perform other daily activities.

It is hard for us to make sense of how our lives have turned upside down.

Our sense of purpose is dampened because the plans we made and the tasks we aimed to accomplish are shattered or put to a halt for an indefinite period. 

The feeling of uncertainty makes us wonder if the effort we put in will still yield the result we hope for. 

Likewise, the pandemic undermines our sense of significance because of the restrictions on how we pursue the activities that we always look forward to, spend time with the people we love, or celebrate life milestones that we anticipate, such as marriage, graduation, or a first job.

Life, as a result, feels ordinary and insignificant.

How can then we restore our life meaning in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and in the age of social distancing?


The first step to adaptive self-reflection for meaning, as paradoxically as it may sound, involves a self-distancing exercise.

Experience tells us it is easier to reason objectively about somebody else’s problem and provide him or her with wise advice than about our own.

That is often the case because our attempt to reflect on our own problem focuses us on the situation from a psychologically immersed perspective, and this makes it difficult for us to work through it rationally without getting caught up in our own emotional responses.

This process then leads us to ruminate and makes us feel worse.

This “self-reflection puzzle” is why University of Michigan psychology professor Ethan Kross believes it is important to “take a few psychological steps back” from our experience to allow us to reflect on a problem more constructively and resolve it more effectively.

Prof Kross calls this process self-distancing. It is a way to see the “big picture” of the situation.

Interestingly, his research has shown the benefit of self-distancing in promoting more rational thinking about the threat of an Ebola outbreak in the United States.

In an online survey that involved more than 1,000 participants, Prof Kross and his colleagues randomly divided people into two groups and asked them to write their deepest thoughts and feelings about Ebola using either the first-person pronouns (I, my) or using one’s own name and third-person pronouns (he/she, his/her) as a self-distancing technique.

People who used a third-person language were found to be significantly more likely to generate fact-based reasons not to worry about Ebola compared to those who used a first-person language.

The people’s fact-based reasons not to worry about Ebola, in turn, lowered their levels of worry about Ebola and perceived probability of getting infected by the virus.

Prof Kross also found other effective self-distancing strategies such as asking people to recount and reconstrue their negative experience from a physically distanced perspective as if they are a neutral observer, or to imagine how they see a negative event from a temporally distanced, far-future perspective.

Indeed, multiple studies that he and his colleagues conducted have established the link between self-distancing and individuals’ emotion regulation, rational thinking, and wellbeing in a variety of negative life experiences.


Let’s take a step back to see a broader and holistic view of our relationship with the pandemic, and ask ourselves questions pertinent to the three life meaning dimensions. 

In terms of coherence, in what ways can I adapt my ideas to make sense of what has been happening during this pandemic?

How do I see the relevance of the prevailing precautionary directives and the importance of following them?

What have I learned about myself and people around me from the ways I and they respond to the situation?

How do I see my own health in the broader view of my life, lifestyle, and those around me?

In terms of purpose, what plans and goals are stunted during this pandemic? How can I realistically “downsize” my goals into interim and intermediate goals in a way that will still contribute to the attainment of my larger goals?

By contrast, is it possible for me to “broaden” my goals to embark on projects that allow me to be of service to others, express my values, use my strengths, and still bring a sense of joy and fulfilment?

How can I make this period an opportunity to grow?

In terms of significance, what does my experience during this pandemic tell me about who and what really matter to me? What really concerns me during this pandemic?

How does the pandemic affect my relationships with the people and activities that matter to me, and in what ways can I still connect with and pursue them?

How can I spend this period as an opportunity to clarify and adjust my priorities that make my life worth living?

Nothing in our lifetime has prepared us for this unprecedented pandemic. It has presented us not only with a multitude of life changes and challenges but also an invitation to respond.

As has been the case to many others, life meaning may also give us the psychological resilience needed to protect us during this adversity, and beyond.

As Austrian psychologist Victor Frankl once said: “Between stimulus and response, there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

We do not have to take this pandemic as just an opportunity to stay afloat and survive, but as a possibility to soar and thrive.



Gregory Arief D Liem is an associate professor at the Psychology and Child & Human Development Academic Group, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.

Read the original article here.


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