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What the Japanese concept of ‘hikikomori’ can teach us during physical distancing

Social isolation has its silver lining but it's up to us to ensure it doesn't tarnish

Photo credit: @rorytucker
Photo credit: @rorytucker

COVID-19 & FORCED HIKIKOMORI

Admittedly I know little about Japanese culture.  I do love Whistler sushi, however.  Spice agedashi tofu aside, in this time of COVID-19 I couldn’t help but think about the concept of hikikomori, or “pulling inward”.

The word— which is both a noun and an adjective, like gold or alcoholic — was first defined in the early 2000s in an official Japanese governmental report as “those who show no interest in personal development or friendship for more than six months.”  The Economist describes the hikikomori as “recluses…people who have played no part in society”.

Originally a Japanese affliction, the decision to become a shut-in has apparently become an American subculture.  Now with the onslaught of novel coronavirus, I fear hikikomori — the adjective — will spread as the virus did, entrapping more of us in its wake.

MENTAL HEALTH PANDEMIC

By entrapment, I don’t mean we’ll be trapped at home.  We are, the jig is up.  What I mean is it will force us to spend more time in our heads.  If you’re an introvert, this is familiar territory.  If you’re someone who’s struggled with mental illness, this is dangerous territory.

A pandemic is a perfect trigger for depression.  The unknown coupled with a monumental lack of control is the perfect formula for a mental health downward spiral.   When we have nothing but time to think, our minds overthink.  “Pulling inward” can certainly be a chance for introspection.  Solitude can lead to opportunities to learn about ourselves.  The other extreme, unfortunately, is catastrophizing, false narratives, anxiety and loneliness.  Depression can lead to self-isolation on a good day.  Add a pandemic and you have the makings of hikikomori.

SELF-ISOLATION, NOT SOCIAL ISOLATION

I’ve heard many stories from friends and friends of friends about how they’re having difficulty coping.  Mood swings have become the norm for many.  Those normally on the positive side of the mental spectrum are even feeling the effects.  Some end up closing themselves off further, not wanting to admit we’re having a hard time or burdening others with their mad mojo.  And on and on it goes.

One immediate balm is for those who are struggling to confide in someone they trust.  The second is for those trusted people to listen without judgment.  The third is to be kind, to ourselves for what we’re going through and to others.

We’re in the midst of an existential crisis.  Our security has been threatened, our sense of self is in question, and our freedom is no longer a guarantee.  We can’t expect our communal “pulling inward” to be easy.

Through the next few weeks and months, let’s endeavor to be kind and to stay responsibly connected.  Our mental health depends on it.

Photo credit: @rorytucker

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