Psychological effects of Coronavirus
A psychological pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a major threat all over the world right now. It creates a psychological pandemic of fear, increasing the prevalence of emotional problems.
It is important to be aware of the psychological effects of coronavirus. As the virus has become a global pandemic and spread, so too has anxiety, fear, panic, paranoia and antisocial behavior.
An awareness and understanding of psychological reactions to the pandemic may ease our fear and anxiety, and stop us from behaving irrationally and anti-socially. So let us talk about the psychological effects of coronavirus.
Uncertainty and lack of experience
With a novel threat comes uncertainty. What makes coronavirus particularly stressful is that there is a lot we don’t know about it. And a lot of people have difficulty dealing with unpredictability.
We’re familiar with the flu, and even if we know that it might be life-threatening to high-risk people, it still doesn’t cause panic and fear. That’s because we have all had it, and we know what to expect and how to handle it.
COVID-19 is more severe than seasonal influenza and has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. The severity of the illness, lack of experience, and steps taken by society to prevent it from spreading, are more than enough to cause fear. Add intense news updates and social media to this, with pictures of ghost cities, people in masks and empty shelves in the stores. That makes fear seem like a pretty adequate response. Is it though? Let us look into that.
What role does fear have during pandemics?
Fear is an emotional, behavioral and physiological coping reaction to perceived threats. As we’ve seen in the current pandemic, the fear arrived long before the actual infection. People have and are experiencing something called anticipatory anxiety. It can be described as an alarm system that stops us from getting into danger. It helps us keep ourselves and our families safe. In this particular situation, fear helps us take precautions necessary to prevent spreading of the virus. But if fear becomes excessively intense or persistent, or if there’s not an actual threat (also called false alarm), it becomes a problem.
Reactions to stressful situations
Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. How you respond to the current outbreak can depend on previous experiences, personality, mental health condition and socioeconomic factors. In general, people are highly resilient to stress. Think about it as a psychological immune defense. In the current situation most people are appropriately concerned, maybe even worried and stressed. But they will get through this without experiencing debilitating anxiety.
People less resilient to stress
A proportion of people are not as resilient to stress due to pre-existing mental health conditions, like anxiety disorders or emotional problems. We can call those people at higher risk of suffering from the psychological pandemic. They will respond with excessive, debilitating anxiety.
Other groups that may respond more strongly to the stressful situation include older people and people with chronic diseases, who are at higher risk for COVID-19. Children and teens, and those working with people affected by COVID-19, like doctors and other health care providers, or first responders might also react more strongly to the situation.
The stress might cause changes in sleep or eating patterns, difficulties in concentrating, worsening of chronic health problems and increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.
What’s adaptive coping?
An example of adaptive coping (or normal coping) is to pay attention to credible news sources and avoid websites devoted to conspiracy theories or rumors. It is to follow the guidelines of health authorities, have a two-week supply of food and toiletries, and be prepared for the possibility of self-isolation.
What’s excessive coping?
An example of excessive coping is someone who’s worried all the time, to the point where it is hard to carry out day-to-day activities and responsibilities. It may cause problems in relationships, at work, or in other important areas.
Some people are constantly checking their own body temperature or watching the news and social media for updates, getting alarmed by the images they see. Other reactions are panic buying and stockpiling supplies.
A more serious reaction to the outbreak is something called xenophobia. Below follows a description of the psychological mechanism behind these behaviors. The intent is to make people aware of why people are acting in certain ways, and therefore become better equipped to prevent and stop destructive behaviors.
You have probably heard of the term xenophobia. It can be explained as an irrational fear of foreigners or anything foreign. It differs from racism in the sense that it’s based on the perception that the other person is from outside the community or nation, rather than physical characteristics.
Some people get xenophobic during disease outbreaks. To understand this reaction it is helpful to have knowledge about a concept called behavioral immune system. It’s based on the idea that our biological immune system is not sufficient to help us avoid infections, because we can’t see things like microbes, bacteria or viruses.
The behavioral immune system is a psychological system that enables us to detect pathogens by looking at cues. If a person has to go to a dirty restroom, that might activate the behavioral immune system. We try to touch as little as possible to avoid contamination.
This system can be set off by foreign people. It evolved over time because foreigners were typically sources of dangerous infections. When two groups intermingle, one group might carry an infection that the other group has never encountered, and therefore has no natural immunity to. This has happened several times throughout history. In a sense, evolution wired us to be cautious around foreigners to ensure survival of the species. But the fear is no longer necessary for our survival since our society today is much more heterogeneous. Still, there are people reacting with a strong fear of foreign people, especially during outbreaks like corona. This fear is irrational and is called xenophobia. People who feel that they are highly vulnerable to disease are more likely to respond with xenophobia.
Panic buying and stockpiling
Panic buying and stockpiling supplies are also examples of behaviors that people might engage in under stressful situations. Everyone is being told that they need to stock up for two weeks of self isolation. That’s not something we normally do, so we might not be aware of what we actually need. Some people will over-purchase supplies because it makes them feel prepared and in control. This triggers other people to over-buy since we interpret danger in the situation based on how other people are reacting. This phenomenon is called herd instinct. It’s when we stop thinking logically and start doing what everyone else is doing. So, if everyone else is panic buying toilet paper, people will follow the herd and do the same, even if it is irrational. And all of the sudden there will be a shortage of toilet paper which will fuel even more panic among people.
As you can see there are psychological reactions to this current situation that can be explained by evolution and how we are wired. But our systems and feelings can be deceiving, a relic from another time in human history. Knowing this might help us use our rational mind even though our instincts might tell us differently.
Social distancing is a non pharmaceutical infection-control action intended to stop or slow down the spread of a contagious disease, in this case COVID-19. In practice it means keeping a safe distance (approximately 6 feet) from others and avoiding gathering spaces such as schools, churches, concert halls and public transportation.
Psychologists’ research has found that during a period of social distancing, people might experience stress, anxiety, anger and depression.
The psychological effects of social distancing
As it stands now people are asked to stay home and limit social contact, and they will likely be cut off from their regular routines for indefinite time. A reduction of meaningful activities and social engagement, financial strain from being unable to work, and a lack of access to typical coping strategies (e.g. going to the gym or hanging out with friends) can affect our mental health.
It is not uncommon to experience anxiety. Many of us are worried about ourselves or family members getting sick. We might also worry about spreading the virus to others. It is also normal to have concerns regarding whether there is enough food, medicine and supplies to last the duration of the pandemic. And as we take time off work it is natural to be worried about finances and how to provide for the family. Due to this some will experience sleeping problems or have a hard time focusing on daily tasks.
Depression and boredom
On our second week of home shelter and/or working from home many of us might be feeling lonely, sad, low and bored. If you fall in the category of extroverts it can be even harder since you are energized by being around other people.
Anger, frustration or irritability
Being isolated or in quarantine can be perceived as a loss of personal freedom. Don’t be surprised if you experience anger, frustration or even resentment toward those who have issued the order. Focusing on the altruistic reasons for social distancing, quarantine or isolation can help relieve stress and anger.
How our mental health affect our immune system
Some studies indicate that stress and anxiety may weaken our immune system, which can leave us more susceptible to infections and illnesses.
It implies that social distancing can cause psychological and physical health risks that actually make us more vulnerable to what we are trying to avoid, in this case, COVID-19. That is one of the reasons some experts want to change the term social distancing to physical distancing. That means reducing the physical contact while maintaining the social connections that help us feel good and stay healthy. The challenge is to find a way to stay socially connected while maintaining a safe physical distance.
How to take care of our mental health
There is still a lack of controlled studies regarding interventions to reduce the psychological risks of social distancing, isolation and quarantine. Even so psychologists have gathered the best ways to handle these circumstances.
Limit news consumption to reliable sources
It’s important to obtain accurate health information regarding COVID-19. But too much exposure to media coverage of the virus can lead to increased feelings of fear and anxiety. According to American Psychologist Association (APA), psychologists recommend balancing time spent on news and social media with other activities that are not related to the situation. Try to engage in activities that are joyful and meaningful to you.
Accept negative emotions
Try not to catastrophize; instead focus on what you can do and accept the things you can’t change. It is important to acknowledge and accept feelings of sadness, fear, worry or anger. It’s not uncommon to try to escape or oppress unpleasant feelings, but avoidance of such emotions will only make them stronger and longer lasting. Notice negative emotions, thoughts and physical sensations as they come up, look into them with curiosity, describe them without judgment and then let them go. This is the essence of mindfulness, which has been consistently linked to good psychological health. It can be helpful to download smartphone applications that deliver mindfulness and relaxation exercises.
Find ways to be social
The demand of social distancing can be very hard for us as humans are social beings, and social interaction is essential to every aspect of our health.
Research shows that having a strong network of support or strong community bonds fosters both emotional and physical health. Therefore it is important to maintain contact with friends, family and colleagues even if we need to keep a physical distance. Stay connected through text, email and phone. There are a lot of options nowadays to hang out virtually.
There is also research that indicates altruism offers mental health benefits that can help counter the negative effects of stressful life events. So take the opportunity to help family and neighbors out in anyway you can.
Create new routines
When life changes like this from one day to another it affects people’s routines. All of the sudden they might not have to get up at a certain time, brush their teeth and get ready for the day. They can’t work out at the gym or hang out with friends the way they used to. Although it can be tempting to escape from reality by Netflix binging, indulging in sweets or having a couple of drinks, try not to depend on these distraction strategies. Studies have shown that creating new routines that connect you to what really matters in life has positive effects on our mental health. So try to set new purposive and healthy routines. It can help us cope with the uncertainty and unpredictability of the time being.
Exercise and good nutrition
Science has shown that exercise and good nutrition are directly linked to emotional well-being. Find other ways to work out. Take a walk, go for a run or try a yoga session online. And isn’t now the perfect time to try out all the healthy recipes you usually don’t have time to make?
Have you heard about the term nature deprivation? It is the idea that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors, and the belief that this results in a wide range of behavioral problems. Well, good news. As long as we are not experiencing complete lock down, nature is still available to us. Go for a hike, spend time in your garden or take a walk in the park. Just remember to stay six feet away from other nature visitors.
Have you ever felt like you are stuck in hamster wheel driven by the ambition to be more successful, earn more and have a bigger house? This could be the perfect time to ponder over what really matters to you in life. As the usual pursuits of status and money are put on hold, where do you find your life purpose and joy?
Practice gratitude, which is known to have a positive effect on our well being. Write a daily list of three or more things for which you are grateful and share your gratitude with others.
Take the opportunity to spend more time with your kids and/or partner. Play games, do crafts or enjoy a less stressful breakfast together.
Keep in mind that experiencing stress and negative emotions can have positive consequences. Studies show that people who go through very difficult life experiences can emerge from them with a stronger sense of psychological resilience, revitalized relationships and a renewed appreciation of life.
”This too shall pass”
Seek professional help
If you experience symptoms of extreme stress and anxiety, ongoing trouble sleeping, inability to carry out daily routines, or an increase in alcohol or drug use, seek help from a health-care provider. There are a lot of psychologists offering treatment online.
If you are a Swedish citizen or have a Swedish visa, schedule a free consultation with Franzen Psykologi.
During COVID-19 outbreak Franzén Psykologi offers 3 free chat sessions if you are:
- over 65
- considered at higher risk for corona
- working in health-care or as first responder