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The psychology of the corona virus: speaking about fear and pandemics

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

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"When two brothers are busy fighting, an evil man can easily attack and rob their poor mother. Mankind should always stay united, standing shoulder to shoulder so evil can never cheat and divide them." - Suzy Kassem

The Corona virus has thrown the world into turmoil. You may be in the camp running for the hills and awaiting impending doom, the team that thinks this is a load of tosh, or, most likely, somewhere in between. Where-ever you’re at psychologically, we discuss what corona is, how to stay safe while this processes, whether you should buy in to all the fear and hype, and how your psychology is affecting your decisions.

What is corona?

It’s not a cold one with lime.

It’s a virus. The virus, Covid-19, is colloquially known as ‘Corona Virus’ and is a new strain of coronavirus, of which there are many, the 2003 SARS virus was also a type of coronavirus. These types of illnesses seem to result in flu-like symptoms: fever, cough, sore throat, and shortness of breath. In people with an underlying health condition or who are over 70, the disease can overwhelm the immune system, the kidneys, or result in severe respiratory problems. However, for about 95% of people, the disease will be similar to experiencing somewhere from a mild to a severe flu. The John Hopkins Centre explains all of this beautifully in both video and text format. Three cheers for medical researchers and practitioners sitting on the frontlines! Thank you for your huge effort so far and more to come.

The recommendations from experts working on the front lines are that: if you are concerned about your symptoms, have a fever or any respiratory difficulty, then you should call your doctor and talk over the phone before going into the doctor’s office or emergency facilities. This ensures that if you are ill from Covid-19, you’re not infecting others - and if you’re not infected, then you minimise your chance of infection. And, even if you’re not worried about catching the virus, there are plenty of older or immune compromised people in the community who will thank you for not becoming a vessel continuing the rapid community spread.

In Australia, supported by the Australian Government Health Department, there is a National Coronavirus Helpline (1800 020 080). This helpline has been set up for people who are seeking information about Covid-19 and operates 24-hrs a day, 7-days a week. Check the internet to see if your country has something similar.

Now, while it appears that most people will not be severely affected or will only need medical support to ride out their Covid-19 infection, the problem is that this bug appears to be quite infectious. This means it is spreading fast. This is the reason healthcare authorities want you to stay home. If less people are infected then we can slow the drain on the healthcare system and not end up having to turn people away at the hospital doors. On the other hand, if we all get infected at once, we can overwhelm the healthcare system and they cannot provide care to all people. This is when difficult decisions about who will receive care may need to be made. By staying at home and slowing the spread of Covid-19 you are supporting the health-care warriors on the front lines and ensuring that those who need medical support to access the care that they need to get through this.

To learn a bit more about how the Covid-19 can affect your biology, why it is potentially deadly for some, and why people in the healthcare system want you to isolate (even if you’re healthy) watch this video from YouTube science animation team, Kurzgesagt; The Coronavirus Explained & What You Should Do. These guys explain Covid-19 like the animating champions they are.

Staying safe: physically and mentally.

In order to stay safe from the virus and reduce community transmission there are a number of excellent suggestions, including; social distancing, maintaining good hand hygiene, avoiding physical touch, avoiding social events and public places when possible, covering coughs and sneezes, following mandatory self-isolation guidelines, and conducting meetings via teleconference. And these are great suggestions for minimising transmission, but they sound like a terrible recipe for maintaining healthy mood.

While a lot of talk and action has been made to engage with medical and behavioural ways to reduce the healthcare impact and death toll, there hasn’t been quite the focus on how your psychology will impact your participation in these health and safety practices or how these practices can impact your mental well-being. And, your psychology, how you think about something, can play a major part in how adherent you are to self-isolation, vaccination, hygiene recommendations that are made, or how these measures may impact your mood.

Psychological reactions to pandemics.

People will respond to pandemics with a range of behaviours, emotions, and defensive reactions. Factors such as age, sex, income, and ethnicity impact the way people react in an epidemic, and people report a range of emotions, for example, excitement, fear, and sadness. Whatever your reaction, know that it is okay. Treat your feelings like information, listen, and when you feel cooler and calmer start finding a solution.

If you have trouble coping with distress, or have a pre-existing mood condition, then the additional communal fear and media messages of urgency could exacerbate this. If this is you, reach out to your health-care professional and talk about your distress. They may be able to help you find some distress tolerance skills or act interpersonally to make you feel supported during this challenging time. If you don’t have someone who can listen non-judgementally, then try looking for someone.

The APS Find a Psychologist tool lists a number of Psychologists who are members of this governing body, but also talk to your GP as they may be able to recommend someone in your area. Many Psychologists will work through teleconferencing tools in order to respect social distancing and offer much needed support.

Factors such as identifying as an optimist, having high resilience, having a religion or spirituality, or social support can be protective to distress.

Some steps to handling personal emotional distress during Covid-19:

  1. Get information from reputable sources and don’t believe all the hype you hear on the news.

  2. Limit the amount of media hype you are exposed to. Don’t let yourself get flooded.

  3. Get in touch with your early warning signs. What do you do when your mood is getting low? For example, "I get irritable and I play less".

  4. Have a plan in place for meaningful weekly social contact, but keep in mind our new social distancing, and get creative. For example, "I'm going to make a date to do a YouTube workout with friends over Skype or Messenger".

  5. Stay in touch with loved ones.

  6. Make yourself a list of mood boosting activities. For example, "I am going to cuddle with my dog, watch re-runs of my favourite show, have an online bookclub meeting, and garden in my yard".

  7. Talk to your Psychologist or Health-care provider.

Of course, it is not just the social isolation that can affect your mental health during an epidemic. We are now seeing the very early start of financial difficulty as people tighten up their spending on non-essentials and bunker down. The workers who service these areas are losing their jobs and with it their income. Older couples and retirees are watching their superannuation and investments dwindle. Money, for many of us, is a resource we use to create security, and when this is impacted it can create fear and burden.

These hard times may mean we need to support one another, or you may need to get creative about your expenses. Please remember we are all in this together - so let's be kind to each other. Doing a charitable act can have benefits for your mood too.

There are also wider societal impacts of pandemics. A pandemic, such as this, can breed xenophobia and fear. We have seen some of this fear in the panic buying that has gone on. And, fear unfortunately can foster discrimination. Yasmeen Serhan, for the Atlantic, speaks eloquently about the xenophobia and discrimination that is taking place due to Covid-19.

How to start challenging your discrimination thoughts:

  1. Read about, or speak to, people who are experiencing this discrimination. Their evocative stories can show you what it feels like to be on the receiving end of discrimination.

  2. Think about, or journal, about times you experienced discrimination. How did it feel? Did you wish you could tell your story? Feel wronged?

  3. Question the concept of ‘threat’ you have been fed on mass media. Ask yourself, am I reacting emotionally? Is this threat impacting me now? Is it as bad as I think it is? Am I actually able to cope with it better than I think I can?

Closing thoughts?

To help you through this tough time, we've created an extended post with 19 tips for staying mentally well during covid-19. Check it out here.

For more reading on The Psychology of Pandemics, see The Psychology of Pandemics, written by Dr. Steven Taylor. With over 300 publications and 20 books, this guy is a serious heavy weight on anxiety disorders, researching and writing about topics including health anxiety and trauma.

And check out our program on Generalised Anxiety for insights and techniques on how to improve your mental health during covid-19.

Michelle, on behalf of the myThereo team.

This article is for information purposes only. Please refer to the full disclaimer and terms and conditions before making use of this information.

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