Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Psychology of Covid-19

Image by Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris
Is there a “Psychology of Covid-19” yet?

Of course there is. Here’s a podcast about Coronavirus Anxiety, already a little dated, perhaps tragically so. Worldwide, it seems that anxiety is having more impact than disease symptoms, and lots of articles have attempted to explain why. Too much information from unreliable sources leads to ambiguity, and this has fuelled anxiety this time round, and at least in the early stages, is thought to have led to increases in racist behaviour, according to Ashley Abramson. Another article in Forbes agrees that uncertainty is key to the impact of this pandemic, and is responsible for the unusual panic we’ve seen all round the world. Panic-buying seems to be the thing this time round, and there’s some good discussions on it (and other aspects) on the BPS the Psychologist website – for example, go and look at a discussion of panic-buying as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: once the media report panic-buying, people go and panic-buy. 

There is an evolutionary explanation for this, though, and this National Geographic post describes the amygdala as the emotional centre of the brain, arguing that it kicks in and takes over when a threat appears and a clear solution is not easily available. Buying that seems hasty and irrational is really a normal attempt to reassert control over the situation, one that we are more likely to resort to under conditions of uncertainty, or after prolonged exposure to stress. 

In fact, this article argues, the rush to buy toilet paper after the media report is best understood not even as panic at all, but rather a reflection of an increased sense of shared identity: an increased sense of bonding to our neighbourhood, coupled with our awareness that supplies of antiseptic wipes, toilet paper, and dried pasta are running low in the supermarket means that we’re following the norm, not panicking. There’s a longer BBC article about the psychology of panic-buying here, if you want to understand it in more detail.

Looking after ourselves and preventing social isolation

We’ve been reminded to look after ourselves, and there are plenty of suggestions on how and why to do this. There’s even a behavioural insights unit currently working with the UK government on ways to influence people in desired ways and we’ll know more about that soon. Of primary concern seems to be the potential for social isolation, which was not really the goal of social distancing: we’re supposed to be distancing ourselves physically, but that doesn’t need to mean exposing ourselves to the dangers of loneliness. 

A review of over 3000 studies into the psychological effects of quarantine suggests the most common are post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. This review also identified key problematic features of the quarantine situation as financial loss, frustration and boredom, fear of infection and of infecting others, and inadequate supplies or information. 

For those in the self-isolation now, New Zealand’s Mental Health Foundation suggests limiting exposure to news, seeking contact with others, noticing more of what is around you, and spending more time in nature. Similar advice is available from Mind UK, with a note that, as much as handwashing is important, those prone to anxiety might need to limit how much time they spend doing it. A detailed explanation of why encouraging people to sing songs while washing, for example, is a problem for some OCD sufferers, is available here. If you’re wondering why you should limit your exposure to news, this article from the Psychologist explains some reasons, such as our tendency to go foggy when faced with too many details and instead pay attention to our emotional reaction – to how it feels instead of what it says. There’s more on this kind of bias at Psychology Today and about probability neglect here. The American Psychological Association is briefer in their advice, but reminds us that communicating with children is an important responsibility, and plenty of advice is around about how to do it.

Lots of people – kids, students, employees – have been sent home, and the decision-makers behind this have a responsibility to make the welfare of those people top priority. Matt East, CEO and Founder of GTS Alive Group, even suggests managers should aim to increase opportunities for soft, peer to peer contact when sending workers home. Schools and universities sending students home need to remember that online courses are more effective with opportunities for good quality interpersonal interactions, and all of us need to remember that the absence of social interactions is harmful at any point in the lifespan (see some work to remedy this with older people), leading to lack of engagement with online courses and in general, among adolescents, an increased risk of depression and even suicide. Home is not always an easy place to be, and not all homes are safe, well stocked for meals, or wifi-enabled. And we must care for educators at home too: this article encourages self-care for educators, with a reminder, for example, not to compare too closely with colleagues or others on the internet who are acing this home-working lark.

So is there a theme to what psychology says about Covid-19?

It seems the two strands so far are these:
  • Widespread anxiety is causing people to behave in ways that can be understood and explained
  • We must look after ourselves so that we don’t suffer the damaging psychological effects of social isolation in our attempts to achieve social distance.

Running additions:
March 30th: Russ Harris, psychotherapist and ACT guru, has produced this practical guide covering steps you can take to "FACE Covid"

Alan Law, PhD

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