New research suggests that flow and mindfulness might help us cope with the mental burden of lockdowns and quarantines — but not equally well.

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Public health authorities around the world attempt to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 by various measures that require people to quarantine themselves. The combination of isolation and economic and other uncertainties might negatively impact some people’s mental well-being.

A group of researchers in the United States and China have some recommendations that might help mitigate the psychological challenges of lockdowns.

A new study published in Plos One examined the relationship between the length of isolation, well-being, and coping strategies.

The research team found that the longer people were quarantined, the more their subjective experience of well-being deteriorated.

Researchers conducted an online survey of 5,115 college students in China at the beginning of the imposition of lockdown measures.

The survey captured the length of quarantine, any change in the respondents’ mental well-being, and the impact of two mental states that they may or may not have experienced: flow and mindfulness.

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Flow is a state springing from enjoyable activities in which people are absorbed to such an extent that they become almost unaware of their environment or the passing of time.

Flow state is induced by an activity that is inherently rewarding by providing just the right level of challenge and having well-defined objectives and outcomes.

Over the past decades, several studies have demonstrated that flow can help people cope with a variety of difficult situations, whether at work, in sport, or during communal activities.

Mindfulness is a state in which a person becomes fully conscious of their internal and external circumstances.

A person achieves it by being attentive to the moment in which they are at a given time and observing it without judgment.

In a sense, mindfulness is the opposite of flow in that it requires a raised level of self-consciousness, while in flow a person becomes less self-aware and more focused on the activity performed.

The survey asked the respondents about their mental health, emotional state, expectations about the quarantine period, and how they tried to cope with uncertainty in the week preceding the survey.

Other questions assessed the respondents’ general circumstances and attitudes, including the availability of support from the community, level of loneliness, optimism, satisfaction with life, and health behaviors.

A set of questions measured mindfulness by asking the respondents, for example, for how long and how well they were able to concentrate, focus on the moment, and accept things beyond their control.

Flow was measured by questions about how much the respondents felt challenged by and interested and absorbed in tasks that they were doing.

The results of the study confirmed that both mindfulness and flow might help people cope with the stress of being in an unprecedented situation, such as a quarantine.

Both mindfulness and flow were associated with higher levels of positive feelings and lower levels of depressive symptoms. However, the differences between the two are also important.

Flow appears to have a closer association with reduced feelings of loneliness, less unhealthful behaviors — such as smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol or fast food — and more healthful behaviors, such as exercise and healthful eating.

Higher levels of flow also mitigated the impact of the length of isolation on most well-being measurements. That said, feelings of worry and loneliness still grew with the length of the quarantine.

Mindfulness had stronger associations with fewer negative feelings and symptoms of anxiety but also with more loneliness and unhealthful behaviors.

Unlike flow, mindfulness did not moderate the impact of the length of the quarantine.

The authors suggest that flow might be more successful in limiting well-being deficits over an extended period because it is a form of distraction that helps pass the time through active engagement.

By contrast, mindfulness is very useful for reducing anxiety in a particular moment, but it does not serve as a distraction, which is why it might not be as effective during a longer quarantine.

The study appears to confirm that it is worth pursuing activities that induce flow and mindfulness, but it was not designed to assess what activities are most likely to give rise to these states.

The researchers underline that this type of study can only show associations, not causal relations.

Further study would be required to confirm that the well-being benefits are indeed the result of flow and mindfulness, not the other way around.

For example, it is possible that the experience of distress reduces people’s ability to experience flow and mindfulness.

The study was carried out early on during the lockdown in China, and there was no follow-up to assess the respondents’ experiences at a later date. Therefore, a survey conducted in countries where isolation was less strict but lasted longer might yield different results.

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