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Love: A tentative post pandemic view 

By Deputy Features Editor Sarah O Mahony

In recent times work, family and romantic relationships were navigated differently. New technology connected us all while a dark cloud of anxiety hung over our actions. Do you feel you understand how this has truly affected us? Also, in light of this time of year, it is useful to examine how our basic human desire to be loved can help transition us back into a reopened society.

A recent widely circulated article by District Magazine discusses in detail Irish mental health services and the multi-faceted issues that impede the sector. For me, the standout line is that Ireland now has the ‘third highest rate of mental illness in Europe’. Conversations regarding mental health in Ireland are now weighed down by the years of stagnation of services and the repetitive nature of such conversations. Unfortunately, it is clear that the pandemic has exacerbated existing issues. A report from the HSE cites that 20 percent of the population has significantly increased psychological distress on account of the pandemic and the associated restrictions. As a country we may be sick of talking about reforming the sector, nevertheless there has never been a more appropriate time for change. However, while waiting for structural change, self-soothing techniques as well as reaching out to family, friends and partners is needed to plug the gap. Feeling loved whether it be platonically or romantically can motivate us to address our needs in relation to our mental health. The damage that has been done will only truly come to light the further away we move from the pandemic.  Reaching out to those we trust can help speed this up.

Along with the very obvious surge in mental health problems during the pandemic, ‘touch hunger’ or ‘touch starvation’ also compounded the issue. This of course sounds like something a drunk person would yell out as justification for their unwanted advances towards you. Ignoring the sexual connotations associated with the phrase, it does have standing in the psychology community. Research can be traced back to a 1973 publication in The American Journal of Nursing. The main evidence is biological; physical contact promotes the release of ‘happy’ hormones. Serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins all have a role to play in our wellbeing e.g. the reduction of the stress hormone cortisol. The lack of intimacy during the last two years undoubtedly cast harm on our lives. Coming out of the isolation of this period, it is likely that some of us are only now realising exactly how our emotions were affected. Personally, it took me a long time to recognise that my mental health had taken a major hit at the beginning of 2021. The stress of widening the small circle of close relationships we maintained over lockdowns can make us feel disorientated. Never mind processing the feelings of loneliness you may have felt. However, our connections can sometimes help us to understand ourselves more and spark greater introspective ideas.

Along with reaching out to others to help adjust to the reopening of society, youth mental health organisation Jigsaw recommends regularly asking yourself whether or not your thoughts are constructive or contributing to worry. They also recommend relaxation, mindfulness and grounding techniques to stay in touch with yourself.

The rhetoric out there is that young people have lost out on time to build relationships, both platonic and romantic, and collect experiences. Now is the time to catch up. This rush brings new contentions to light.  Many see college as offering the most opportunities you’ll ever have to find a romantic partner. Especially with the return to in person learning, there is almost an anxious feeling in the air as people search for their college sweetheart while graduation looms over their heads. The annual arrival of new confession pages has also brought a heavier wave of thirst submissions this year. The college is happy to be back on campus and even happier at the thought of finding their new library boyfriend or girlfriend. In my view this is what will deliver us from the emotional withdrawal of the pandemic. A bit of thirst and enthusiasm!

Of course, it is important to keep Jigsaw’s advice in mind with this. Stay in touch with your emotional needs and what makes you feel appreciated. Online learning has taken fundamental coming of age experiences from students and they are now catching up. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to take a step back every once and a while and sit with your emotions. Forget about wondering if they like you, do you like them? Do you feel comfortable around them? What type of romantic connection do you want? 

The need to feel loved is central to the human experience. It is on the third level of Maslow’s hierarchy, that pesky triangle diagram you just can’t seem to shake ever since CSPE in Junior Cert. What makes us feel loved is as unique as ourselves. Some feel cared for when the other person notices small things about you that you thought went unnoticed. Some when their feelings are validated and they are comforted. Although there are five love languages, there is a whole spectrum of what truly makes us feel loved. It is not as black and white as it may seem. In my opinion, acknowledging this individuality is key to romance and relationships in general post COVID. Don’t jump at the first opportunity of a partner or friend, stake it out a little. You deserve it.