The epidemiological crisis brought forth by COVID-19 infections has a psychological domain, normally invisible to the public eye, which has steadily become more obvious. Thanks to the conversations brought by the multitude of ‘psychological impact of COVID-19’ research out there, and clinicians actively making research findings, online services, and self-help tips known, it has become much easier to talk about this without raising a lot of eyebrows.

It is not only the GDP of the state we should be worried about, more fundamentally our psychological well-being is at stake trying to adjust to the reactive measures.

Let me briefly introduce Self-Determination Theory (SDT), proposed by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. It proposes that a lot of our intrinsic motivation are based on three basic needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competency*. If we have them and orient our lives around them, we function more optimally and live more fulfilling lives. Autonomy (to be able to choose and act based on those choices), relatedness (feeling connected with others), and competency (getting good at an action or craft) serve as the base ingredients of human well-being: if we have them, we become more intrinsically motivated and live lives of higher quality.

So, lets put the features of this ‘new normal’ into the picture, and suddenly it becomes blatantly clear why a lot of us feel demotivated on a day-to-day basis.

Our autonomy has been hit hard, having been encouraged to stay at home with many facilities shut down. Some of us who prefer to stay at home even before the outbreak are affected less, but there are definitely less choices and freedom to be had due to restricted access to places like gyms, food outlets, travel locations, parks, malls, and libraries, which are either not operating or have more restrictions.

Our sense of relatedness is also greatly affected by calls of ‘social distancing’. Discouraged from gatherings of any sort (at work, school, or leisure), our opportunities for interactions are limited to homes or online social spaces. Some of us might find that the people we interact with routinely are suddenly different. Those who do not have the fortune of good relationships among housemates or family members, the epidemic demotivates them ever more. To top of it off, online social spaces do not offer a lot in terms of sustaining quality relationships. WhatsApp messages and Zoom conferences allow us to barely keep in touch, but there is always going to be something reassuring about those interactions due to the lack of clarity when it comes to emotional and non-verbal cues.

Our sense of competency is also greatly diminished, but probably in different ways depending on your lifestyle. Some of us lose our jobs entirely, leaving us with no sense of things we can master. There are also a lot of us who are to work from home, adopting a different work routine that we are not prepared for or limited in scope. Sometimes we get no feedback about our quality of work, making us unsure if we are getting better at it. Other times, we encounter fundamental barriers due to having to work from home that are just too difficult to overcome with limited learning opportunities. We lose touch of this feeling of getting better at something, which is a vital psychological need.

With most sources of intrinsic motivation running rather dry, we turn to extrinsic motivation which are inherently less sustainable. The most notable example of this is money. But with the economic downturn accompanying this pandemic there is much less wealth to go around, resulting in employees being forced to take pay cuts or risk retrenchment. With such unstable working conditions, even the wells of extrinsic motivation are running dry. It is no wonder why many of us are having difficulty functioning optimally in the current social climate.

It is ambitious to offer an antidote for this predicament, but we could sensibly attempt to look at our psychological needs and see if we could fulfill them again. We should carve a space for ourselves in the day and contemplate on some questions.

  1. Autonomy. What are some of the things you can choose to do? A hobby you always wanted to take up? Tidying up and furnishing your resting or working space? Monitor the way your time is spent? Pick up a book or two? Negotiate with your employer or supervisor about work conditions? Focus on the small things within your control.
  2. Competency. What are some of the things you are good at, but stopped doing? What are some of the things you would like to get better at or wanted to pick up? Think about crafts or a field of inquiry you would like to dabble in.
  3. Relatedness. Who are the people that matter to you? Have you been in touch with them? What’s stopping you from arranging a chat session? If not now, then when? Focus on social experiences that you can develop meaningful interactions with.

In these tough times, it has never been more important to examine the gaps in our basic psychological needs. Let us know what are some of the things you have done for yourself to fulfill your basic psychological needs? Share them with us.

*To be academically precise, the theory mentioned here is actually Basic Psychological Needs Theory, which is one of the mini-theories parked under the umbrella meta-theory of Self-Determination Theory.

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Jia Yue Tan
JY is a counselling trainee at Monash University Malaysia under the Master of Professional Counselling program and writes psychology articles to procrastinate from his counselling paperwork and assignments. His interests are in individual differences, psychotherapy, and helping the public understand psychology(s) as a profession. Occasionally reviews books and promote person-centered psychotherapy.

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