How You Can Help – The Psychology of the COVID-19 Pandemic – Dr. Bridget Melson

They say it is a pandemic. Uncertainty abounds. The disease alone, however is not the issue. There is also a psychological aspect that all of us should consider and for which we all can play a positive role. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) a pandemic is declared when “a new disease for which people do not have immunity spreads around the world beyond expectations.” They go on further to explain that pandemics are marked by uncertainty, confusion and a sense of urgency. (WHO, 2005). 

Influenza pandemics occur every 10-30 years. In 1918 we had the H1N1. In 1957-1958 we saw H2N2. In 1968 there was H3N2. In 2009, we saw H1N1pdm09 and now we have COVID-19.

In the past, humans were blindsided by the measles, polio, malaria, tuberculosis and even leprosy. They had little knowledge of the spread, lowered immune systems and no way of getting the word out fast enough – nor did they have adequate access to medical help. We are in different times now and we cannot compare what was, to the advances in technology, medical knowledge and resources we have now. That alone should calm your mind and ease your panic and concern.

We know more, we have the best researchers, we have medications readily available and, especially in America, we have the best resources. 

So why the pandemic panic? Why the increased anxiety and fear that is now causing further physical and mental health issues and is it a rational reaction? 

You may be surprised.

We panic because of the unknowns: the severity, the potential death rate, the rate of how it spreads, the possible misinformation, and how people outside of our immediate group will react to the pandemic.

Unbeknownst to us, the knowledge to which we have access, the need to gain information from various social media outlets and the continued promotion of fear by the media is perpetuating our anxiety and hysteria. We then internalize this irrational fear and it immediately lowers our ability to cope, both physically and mentally.  As our stress hormones react by going into overdrive, that can quickly lead to a lowered immune response, higher blood pressure (one of the risk factors of getting COVID-19) and the downward spiral begins. 

That has led to overreaction and unnecessary hospital visits, which prohibits those more at risk from getting prompt assistance. Overreaction has also led to irrational panic in many stores. Further, both medically fragile and more at-risk people are feeling the need to rush to crowded stores to get supplies. 

All of that only furthers the pandemic by putting them unnecessarily at risk of exposure and mental health issues. Trade continues, truckers are still making deliveries and pharmacies remain well-equipped—that is if we don’t stop hoarding out of fear and panic. 

Though we have this information, people are continuing to make rash decisions, tempers are flaring, conspiracies are flying, neighbors are feuding, and fragile lives are now more at risk because of this unnecessary panic.

The psychological component of pandemics quite often surpasses the damage done by the actual virus. It is up to us to stop reacting to the mass media frenzy and instead step back and remember that common courtesy and common sense are our friends. That is what differentiates humans from animals, and we need to take a moment to reflect on our actions, motives and surroundings.

My hope is that we will be more cognitively aware of our decisions and are able to step back, weigh the severity of this pandemic, be rational, use common sense and refrain from allowing the media to control our thoughts and behaviors. If we do not do that, we will see an increase in mental health issues with those already either predisposed or with pre-existing psychological issues. That can then have a physical impact on a greater amount of the population than otherwise necessary. 

This will pass. This will end. The majority of us will come out fine, and with an even stronger immune system, on the other side of this.

This is not a time for xenophobia, nor a time to blame politicians, health workers or anyone else for that matter. The anger, obsession and fear that that causes will only potentially lead to further mental and physical health issues. We as a nation and as a people need to be stronger than that. Your loved ones and even more so, your fragile and elderly neighbors need you to not buy into the media fear mongering. It does nothing productive for us as human beings and it only has the potential to do harm to you physically. 

We must remember that pandemics are not just viral and physical in nature. There is a huge psychological aspect to COVID-19 that can and will affect the spread of the disease and even its containment. Many are concerned about not having the resources they will need, being out of work due to closings or illness, that their family will suffer, food will not be available, banks will close causing financial issues, routines will be disrupted, and social isolation will occur due to quarantines that may be necessary. 

Yes. These things most likely will happen. Every single human being in the United States will be affected by one or more of these real-life scenarios. There will be financial hardship. There will be displaced families and there will be accommodations we will all have to make. But, we can handle it and we need to tell ourselves that we can rise above the pandemic fray. Our President and administration, the researchers we have in place and the worldwide sharing of and access to information is more efficient and capable than ever before. Our great grandparents and beyond had to deal with pandemics far worse and most of them came out stronger, wiser and paved the way for us to make an impact on those around us. We must not let them down. This is what America is about.

Can impact on helping COVID-19 pass through the US faster? YES.

We need to take a step back and take into consideration that when threatened by infection, people will react differently. While that is their right, we need to personally make sure to let them have their space and opinions and be sure to not add to it. Self-control is key. Use common sense. Be kind to those in need, especially to our elderly friends and neighbors. Then do these following things to decrease mental and physical stress and it will greatly reduce the panic and fear, and therefore the unnecessary run on supplies, and public outbreaks of emotional distress and social disorder. It will also decrease your chances of not only being infected, but aid you in surviving and thriving if COVID-19 becomes a reality for you and your family:

  • Use common sense and adhere to the WHO and CDC guidelines:
  • Be healthfully aware–eat well, wash hands frequently, stay home if you are sick and if you have any flu or COVID-19 symptoms, call a medical professional BEFORE visiting the office so they can advise you on precautionary measures to protect you and others.
  • Self-care is KEY—when feeling stressed, take deep breaths, stay calm, meditate, pray, listen to calming music, take a walk outside, turn off the television, talk as a family
  • STAY Home–if it is not a life or death issue do not travel unnecessarily. The world will not end if you are not there.
  • Limit your social and news media interactions—check it once a day and then move on.
  • Be kind and considerate—when shopping ask yourself, “are you are buying unnecessarily so others may be at risk?”
  • Get mental health help—there are now several options to talk to mental health professionals via text or online., and are some of the best. Doctor On Demand can also help you in the first stages of diagnosing COVID-19.

From everything that has been reported by our government and CDC, the United States is above the curve. That alone, should shorten the time that COVID-19 is active and instead cause us to peak early and decrease in numbers rapidly and put our minds at ease. 

Being psychologically cognizant of how we react is imperative to how fast this will spread and how socially and emotionally we, as a nation, will respond to this pandemic. It is up to you, me and those around us, to shorten this. We can do that by abiding by the above suggestions and using the common sense and self-control God gave us. Be smart, be safe, and be kind to others.

The Psychology of the COVID-19 PandemicDr. Bridget Melson, MFT, Psy.D

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