How is the lockdown affecting you? We explore the psychological impact of the coronavirus pandemic and identify some steps we can take to maintain our wellbeing.
None of us have experienced anything like it before, and so we have no template for how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, people are finding their way through it as best they can, and it appears to be bringing out the best and the worst in us. We’re seeing the rebirth of community spirit, with people going out of their way – sometimes putting their own health at risk – to support others who are unable to help themselves. Neighbours are looking after the most vulnerable in their locality, whilst the weekly tribute to the NHS and social care is a heartfelt and emotionally-charged expression of appreciation and support for these embattled services.
But we’ve also seen shocking scenes, unashamedly posted on social media, of homes stacked from floor-to-ceiling with household essentials. At the same time, there are reports of hospital visitors stealing hand-sanitising gel – vital for the protection of doctors and nurses, striving to save patients’ lives.
What is surprising is, how knowledge of such behaviors and their subsequent adoption, is spreading at breakneck pace. In large part, this is down to a phenomenon which psychologists refer to as social contagion – that is, the spread of ideas, attitudes and behaviours through imitation or conformity. It’s nothing new; social contagion has always been with us, but never has it worked so efficiently. It’s a consequence of two things: firstly, the high levels of anxiety the crisis has generated and secondly, the ubiquity of social media platforms. I will return to anxiety shortly, but the consequence of swift social contagion is that unhelpful or even false ideas can be communicated at a pace that parallels and perhaps exceeds the pandemic spread.
To stick with the viral metaphor, social media platforms are the most efficient vectors for spreading fake news or unhelpful information and for ratcheting up anxiety levels. Interim findings from quick off the mark research from the Institute of Employment Studies showed that we are right to be concerned about the longer-term health impact of working from home during lockdown. It was by no means all bad news, with many employees feeling increasing levels of trust and appreciation from their employer. However, even a couple of weeks into lockdown, there were early signs that mental health issues had surfaced; from feelings of isolation, to fears about family and job security, to increased levels of anxiety.
But let’s be clear – this is not the kind of disproportionate anxiety associated with some mental health problems; this is legitimate anxiety, the body’s natural response to uncertain situations, particularly those in which we are heavily invested. Not infrequently, we experience it in normal life, when we face a demanding job interview or when engaged in public speaking to a large audience. It acts as a motivator to prepare us to meet the challenge.
It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that uncertainties abound. We’re dealing with more and greater uncertainties than we have experienced at any time in our lives. At a societal level, we’re surrounded by unknowns and reminded of them – sometimes unhelpfully, through saturation news coverage. We don’t know enough about the virus, or when a vaccine is likely to be available. We also don’t know what long-term global economic impact the pandemic will have. And the mixed messages we’ve received from politicians are hardly reassuring. But there are many more uncertainties closer to home. Many of us have loved ones that are vulnerable, and we may fall into the vulnerable category ourselves. We don’t know when our work or personal lives will return to anything resembling normality, and many of us are coping with the strain of confinement with children – once again, with no inkling of when it will end.
No one has the answer to any of these questions and that creates a permanent undercurrent of anxiety. And anxiety will drive people to seek out simple, often irrational solutions. This is because when we experience high levels of anxiety, the limbic system – our most primitive brain area – can take over. Responsible for our emotional reactions and for survival behaviours like the ‘fight or flight’ response, the limbic system can override the pre-frontal cortex; the part of the brain that takes care of planning, organising and rational decision-making.
As a result, we witness unhelpful behaviours such as panic-buying. When we see footage of people buying-up shelves worth of toilet rolls we get agitated and we suddenly realise we’re low too – supply is running out, so we better get down to the shops before they’re unavailable for months. Who wants to be in that position? Anxiety like this is contagious, so we need to take steps to prevent it from going into overdrive.
One important way to achieve this is to restrict our social media consumption. Doing so has multiple benefits: it means you’re less exposed to the proliferation of hair-raising stories that heighten anxiety; secondly, it makes you less susceptible to the proliferation of fake news that is often finely-tuned to our greatest anxieties and fears. Sometimes, our hopes are raised by a good news story only to see them shattered, when it turns out to be a fabrication. Many, including myself, got excited about a simple self-diagnosis technique for Coronavirus, translated from a Japanese medical website. It involves holding your breath for ten seconds – and if you can do so without coughing, then you’re supposedly free of the fibrosis in the lungs, which is characteristic of Coronavirus. Like so many others, I shared it and, of course, like so much on social media – it turned out to be untrue.
Another technique for managing anxiety in these circumstances is to try and keep the scale of threat in perspective. People see shocking events happening globally: the growing casualty figures: hospitals struggling to cope; and the lack of proper protective equipment. They can’t stop themselves conflating what they’re seeing with their own personal circumstances and this drives their anxiety to levels that are disproportionate to the true risk they face.
Because we’re living through something unparalleled in our lifetimes, for many of us, there is also a compulsion to watch these events unfold, through the endless news bulletins. Once again, some moderation of this impulse is in order, as each new shocking fact or statistic can raise our anxiety levels further. Whereas, reduced daily consumption can enable us to stay calmer, manage everyday concerns, and, in so doing, feel more in control. A friend, who was devouring media content on the pandemic, has seen her anxiety levels plummet since she drastically reduced her daily news intake.
Finally, ensure that you obtain coronavirus information from reliable sources such as the NHS or the BBC. This won’t always reduce your anxiety levels, but it will help to prevent you becoming agitated by things that have no basis in reality.
This article is the first of two on managing stress and anxiety during social lockdown – with the second to come.