Reflections on Stress and Place in the Time of Coronavirus

Thea Prosser
BSc Anthropology

Two aspects of my anthropology course sprung to mind when I was reflecting upon the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown which I have experienced in the UK. The first concerns the impact of social stress on mental health. The second concerns the concept of place used within Material Culture and how my experience during the lockdown leads me to suggest that place is not confined to a physical location but can be constituted by videoconferencing.

Stress and mental health

Research into the epidemiology of social stress has shown that life stress has an important effect on mental health, causing or exacerbating depression (Turner, Wheaton and Lloyd 1995). Life stress can be broken down into stressful life events, enduring stressors and major lifetime traumas (Turner, Wheaton and Lloyd 1995). The Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown represent an unprecedented combination of all of these potential life stresses across the entire world. 

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have caused a wide range of different stressors including: threat to an individual’s physical health; threat to family or friends’ physical health; disruption to routine; loss of support systems; separation from family and friends; loss of income; increased pressure and risk at work (eg. for NHS workers on the front line); physical confinement (made worse by poor living environment and/or lack of outdoor space); food insecurity.

I suggest that these stressors will lead to a deterioration of mental health amongst the whole population. There is some evidence to suggest this, based on studies of the impact of quarantine on mental health following previous infectious disease outbreaks eg. SARS, MERS (Nobles et al. 2020). 

It is not yet exactly clear how this increase in stress and its impact on mental health will be distributed across society but the factors influencing this include living conditions, poverty, poor access to healthcare, illiteracy, risk of unemployment, genetics, life experiences and social support (Southwick and Charney 2012 cited in Vinkers et al. 2020). I would add to these factors possible mitigations of stressors, called resistance resources, such as the ability to communicate digitally, particularly in facilitating social support.

It is too early to draw any conclusions about the impact of Covid-19 and the lockdown on mental health and its differential impact on various groups in society. Research will no doubt give us a clearer picture.

The concept of place

A stressor which I, together with most others, have experienced during the lockdown is a drastic change to daily routine. Overnight our freedom was restricted, and lives shrank to the inside of our homes. In the middle of March, all of my appointments and my social life went online in the form of Skype and Zoom calls. This sudden transformation in my digital practice corresponds to the findings of Broadbent’s ethnography that changes to digital communication occurred in response to significant life changes (2012).  

Instead of travelling to various places around London, I now sit on my bed in front of my laptop screen and I am digitally transported to what in the past was a university classroom, a quiz at the pub with friends or a therapy session near Swiss Cottage. My experience of place has suddenly changed. 

For anthropologists, place is more than simply a physical location. The simplest definition is that it is a meaningful space that comprises location, locale and sense of place (Agnew 1987 cited in Cresswell 2004). A more expansive and abstract definition, but which still emphasises meaning, is adopted by Tilley (1994) for whom place is a setting for human action with a density of meaning that includes human narrative and experiences. Two other features of his definition are that people experience place through all of their senses, leading to embodied knowledge; and that the meanings attached to place are subjective but also shared by communities of people. Likewise, the emphasis on meaning is core to Thornton’s definition of place: a “framed space that is meaningful to a person or group over time” (2008:10). 

None of these definitions discusses whether place is confined to a physical location or whether the concept can properly be applied to the digital realm. I will explore whether this is the case by reflecting upon my experience of the group therapy sessions that I attend having moved from physical meetings to Zoom calls. 

The large, bare room used by the therapy group for the physical meetings I used to attend is a clear example of place. Each member of the group has their own subjective experience of attending therapy in this room for an hour each week, but it is the multiplicity as well as similarity of experiences which makes this somewhere meaningful. The room is a setting for the practice of communicating, sharing experiences and relating to each other and is embedded with meaning to our community. Clearly therefore, the therapy room is a place in accordance with Agnew, Tilley and Thornton’s definitions. 

Do the Zoom therapy meetings which have now replaced the physical sessions occur in a place, notwithstanding there is no one physical location? I will suggest that the group has indeed over time created a new place through the practices that we have engaged in and meaning which we have collectively attached to the Zoom meetings. 

There is one important point that needs addressing before discussing why I consider that the Zoom therapy meetings occur in a place. Waskul (2005) has argued that all forms of communication over the internet are disembodied, which might suggest that my Zoom therapy sessions do not exist in any place because place, by definition, is experienced through all the senses and gives embodied knowledge. He states that digital communication is disembodied because computers use binary code to create a representation of the human body and the physical world which is then shared across networks and appears on another’s screen. Obviously, the moving image symbolising a person on a video call is different to the “meat” of their physicality (Waskul 2002 cited in Waskul 2005), but his argument ignores the subjective experience of the Zoom participants. I use my body, facial expressions and gestures to communicate as well as my mind and words. I have no sensation of separation of mind and body. Moreover there remains some of my embodied knowledge of the therapy group room as I used to know it before lockdown. The familiar routines and well-known voices tap into “a substrate of sensory knowledges and embodied aptitudes” within me (Hirschkind 2009: 2)

Although the first few sessions over Zoom were stilted as we had been displaced without warning, over the last 16 weeks we have created a new place by the same five people meeting every week at the same time through the same video conferencing medium. 

Our practice of sharing stories, emotions and memories has the same rhythm and feel as previously in the physical therapy room. But they are now attached to the screen on my laptop within my bedroom, where I always participate in the session, and this has become a new place which provides a “way of understanding the world” (Creswell 2004: 11). We construct a sense of belonging and identity in the way we relate to each other and in the places we inhabit, and this now includes my regular Zoom sessions.

This place is created as the Zoom window fills the screen of my computer, each of the members of the group join the video call and they are literally ‘framed’ in their own rectangular box. Their appearances also stay constant so I now associate the experience of group therapy with seeing one member in their modern kitchen, another on their bed, and someone else in the fading light of their parents’ attic room one time zone ahead of London. My experience matches exactly the definition of place given by Thornton – to cite again a “framed space that is meaningful to a person or group over time” (2008: 10).

Although the Zoom window on my laptop screen exists for only an hour every week, it is no more ephemeral than the physical therapy room which normally only has meaning to me and my therapy community for the exact same duration each week. The sense of place created by the Zoom therapy sessions has, for me, been a powerful resistance resource mitigating the adverse effect of the pandemic on my mental health.

In conclusion, the breadth of the anthropological approach is illustrated by the two different aspects of the course discussed in this essay. The insight that social stress adversely affects mental health is perhaps an obvious one, but the analysis in terms of the different sorts of stressors when applied to the pandemic and lockdown is useful. I have argued that the concept of place is broad enough to encompass at least some types of videoconferencing and that this realisation gives explanatory force to the experience of my regular group therapy on Zoom and provides a good example of an effective resistance resource against deterioration in mental health.

Title image: Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

  1. Agnew, J. A. 1987 Place and Politics. London: Routledge.
  2. Broadbent, S. 2012. Approaches to personal communication. In: Horst, H. and Miller, D., eds. Digital anthropology. London: Berg.
  3. Cresswell, T. 2004. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  4. Hirschkind, C. 2006. The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. New York: Columbia University Press.
  5. Nobles, J., Martin, F., Dawson, S., Moran, P. and Savovic, J. 2020. The potential impact of COVID-19 on mental health outcomes and the implications for service solutions. [online] [Accessed 5 July 2020].
  6. Southwick, S. and Charney, D. 2012. The Science of Resilience: Implications for the Prevention and Treatment of DepressionScience, 338(6103), pp.79-82.
  7. Thornton, T. 2008. Being And Place Among The Tlingit. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  8. Tilley, C. 1994. A Phenomenology Of Landscape: Places, Paths And Monuments. Oxford: Berg.
  9. Turner, R., Wheaton, B. and Lloyd, D. 1995. The Epidemiology of Social StressAmerican Sociological Review, 60(1), pp. 104 – 125.
  10. Vinkers, C., van Amelsvoort, T., Bisson, J., Branchi, I., Cryan, J., Domschke, K., Howes, O., Manchia, M., Pinto, L., de Quervain, D., Schmidt, M. and van der Wee, N. 2020. Stress resilience during the coronavirus pandemicEuropean Neuropsychopharmacology, 35, pp. 12-16
  11. Waskul, D. 2005. Ekstasis and the internet: liminality and computer-mediated communication. New Media & Society, 7(1), pp. 47-63.

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