It’s all about competence, confidence, and control
In 2017, right before I embarked on my career as a freelance writer, I traveled to Yosemite National Park for a four-day solo trip along the John Muir Trail. While I was a frequent hiker and camper, I had been backpacking only once before in my life, and I had certainly never done it by myself.
The two challenges I was facing — backpacking and starting a business of one — seemed unrelated at the time. But I now realize that my subconscious rationale was that if I could survive in the woods by myself, surely I could survive professionally and economically on my own.
It’s not really about being able to build a fire or carry a heavy pack over long distances, it’s a general feeling of competence that imbues you with a sense of confidence.
Although the link is tenuous, survival psychologist Sarita Robinson, PhD, a principal lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom, says the connection between conquering a physical challenge and a mental challenge makes sense. “[You] have that satisfaction and knowledge that, ‘If I was under pressure, I could actually cope with it,’” she says. “It shows you that when push comes to shove, you’re able to get on and do things.”
It’s not really about being able to build a fire or carry a heavy pack over long distances, it’s a general feeling of competence that imbues you with a sense of confidence. And that realization of “I can do this” can carry over into other parts of life. Having accomplished one hard task, you believe you can problem-solve and persevere through other difficult situations as well.
Now faced with the challenge of a global pandemic, it seems that many of us are brushing up on our practical skills, although they’re more Little House on the Prairie than My Side of the Mountain. And while knitting a scarf may not directly relate to surviving a deadly virus, it does provide a feeling of competence and control. Maybe we can’t ensure that our parents will be safe or we won’t lose our jobs, but we can turn flour, water, and yeast into bread and grow our own sustenance from vegetable trimmings and seedlings. And in gaining control over that facet of our lives, we gain a little control over the rest of our lives, too.
“A lot of this pandemic and the things surrounding it are out of our control,” Robinson says. “It’s not our personal choice to stay at home, it’s not our personal choice not to go into the office. Homemaking tasks give you that bit of control and a sense of accomplishment.”
A concrete feeling of accomplishment is something that many of us were lacking even before the novel coronavirus emerged, says John Hudson, chief survival instructor for the British military. As our lives have become more virtual, outdoor survival courses and shows like Naked and Afraid have risen in popularity over the last decade. Hudson, who’s applied his survival knowledge to the current situation in the e-book How to Survive a Pandemic, thinks a big reason for this appeal is the instant gratification that living off the land offers people.
When the only evidence that the sacrifices we’re making through social distancing are working is that nothing happens, it makes sense that so many of us would yearn for a more tangible outcome from our efforts.
“We spend an enormous amount of our working hours indoors, looking at a screen, answering emails … and we never really see an immediate or even any tangible result of our efforts,” he says. “Doing survival instruction, there’s a definite reward in my world if you complete a task. It’s almost an immediate reward because you know if you’ve succeeded or failed [in building shelter or lighting a fire] straight away.”
When so much in our lives is uncertain, and the only evidence that the sacrifices we’re making through social distancing are working is that nothing happens, it makes sense that so many of us would yearn for a more tangible outcome from our efforts.
“It may be out of boredom, but when we’re so anxious and you can cook, that’s an effort-based reward,” says Kelly Lambert, PhD, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond. “You’re chopping, you’re dicing, you’re stirring, and then you have this wonderful reward at the end of it, something that’s tangible, something you can see, something you can share with your family.”
It turns out there could be a scientific link between manual labor and emotional well-being. Lambert has discovered that, in rats at least, having to work for a reward rather than receiving it outright enhances the animals’ resilience. She and other scientists have shown that repetitive behaviors increase levels of the feel-good chemical serotonin in the brain, which is the target of most antidepressant drugs, as well as an important steroid, DHEA, that protects against the harmful effects of stress hormones. Lambert says these neurochemical boosts could be why sedentary crafts like knitting can have an anxiety-reducing effect.
At the end of the day, it all comes back to the sense of control over a situation, she says. Psychologists know that feeling a lack of control can lead to depression and hopelessness, but it appears that the opposite may also be true, with a greater sense of self-efficacy having an anxiety-alleviating effect.
“Anytime we can interact with the world around us, and we can predict a change, and we have some sense of control, that seems to calm our anxiety and be, frankly, quite rewarding,” Lambert says.
No one should feel pressure to be productive during a pandemic, but if painting cabinets or pulling weeds or doing a jigsaw puzzle is bringing you a sense of calm, keep it up.
As for me, I’ve got extra sourdough starter in the fridge if anybody needs some.