Coronavirus: The psychology of a "First World disaster"

It's separated us from our known existence and its psychological effects are a whole other level of mind game

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      By Enzo DiMatteo

      Back in the day, one of my beats was covering what others might varyingly describe as cults. And so I’ve had occasion to find myself in some mind-bending situations—est group therapy sessions, getting hooked up to an E-meter. But this coronavirus is a whole other level of mindfuck. 

      After three weeks of venturing out only occasionally for necessities, I’ve noticed synapses firing in my brain (or is that popping?) that I never thought I had before. It’s been an eye-opening experience.

      The effort to fight the coronavirus has been repeatedly likened to war. The psychological effects can make it feel more like a terror attack. It’s the fear of the unknown that’s the thing. Only, the enemy is invisible and the attacks come in waves. 

      I’m luckier than most. I have the daily grind of work to keep me occupied. And a brick wall to fire a tennis ball against when I need to get my ya-yas out. 

      But others who are self-isolating are confined to small spaces and live alone, or in conditions that are overcrowded. Some may live with an abusive partner. Some are elderly. For them, it’s not so easy to escape the anxiety. The one thing that we all have in common, however, is that coronavirus has separated us from our known existence. 

      “We’re all experiencing grief,” says Kim Snow, a child and family therapist with a specialization in trauma-informed care. “It’s unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before."

      Snow calls it "a First World disaster." She likens the effects of coronavirus-mandated social isolation to the psychological distress associated with solitary confinement.

      The World Health Organization identifies the factors inherent to solitary confinement as “social isolation, reduced activity and environmental input, and loss of autonomy and control over almost all aspects of daily life.” Check, check and check.

      Prisoners placed in solitary will begin to feel the mental health effects of social isolation – which range from anxiety to depression, anger and panic attacks (and worse)—within 15 days of confinement. Most of us have been holed up for longer than that. 

      Trauma theory tells us that our brains have biochemical reactions to dramatic events that include a range of responses, from fear, to flight to paralysis. A number of individual factors will determine which ones we’ll experience.

      But unlike solitary confinement, there’s an added layer of anxiety with the coronavirus. And that’s the media messages and images we’re being bombarded with every minute of every day. There's no time to process, which contributes to feelings of helplessness and powerlessness for many. 

      “It’s a complicated message that’s being given out,” says Snow. “We have an educated population, but what we’re being asked to interpret is happening very quickly.” 

      Public health officials are warning about the potential mental health fallout from COVID-19. The Ford government in Ontario has committed millions of dollars in additional funds for online support, including for young people. 

      We will likely be feeling the ramifications for years to come, especially among health care workers on the frontlines fighting the pandemic. The severity of the aftermath will be determined by the effectiveness of the response.

      Psychological contagion

      Since the H1N1 Avian flu epidemic of 2009, public health experts have been warning of an influenza pandemic of the scale of COVID-19 that would shut schools, require mass quarantines and bring commerce to a halt. Yup, just like the movie. It has arrived.

      paper published by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2009 (Preparing For An Influenza Pandemic: Mental Health Considerations), explored the psychological and behavioural consequences of SARS in 2003. It concludes that, “Without planning, the psychological and social toll of a pandemic can turn crisis into catastrophe.” We’ve seen it in China and Italy. We're seeing it in the US. 

      Global experience with SARS, Ebola, Avian flu and other outbreaks tells us that one-third of the population are typically unaffected, one-third will be hyper-vigilant (that is, show signs of fear, insomnia and anxiety), and one-third will be “immobilized” by symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, the Johns Hopkins research notes. 

      While contagion is usually a term associated with the medical transmission of disease, the idea of “psychological contagion”—that pandemics fuel paranoia and fear, in some cases out of proportion to the effects of the disease itself—goes back to the late 1900s and the “collective mind” theory pioneered by French sociologist Gustave Le Bon. 

      We saw that in spades in Surat, India, in 1994, when an outbreak of bubonic and pneumonic plague caused widespread panic and a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from the city. 

      As outlined in the Johns Hopkins study, a similar phenomenon occurred during the SARS outbreak, when even the perceived threat of its spread caused “significant stress” to many individuals living in countries that were not even directly affected by the outbreak. 

      We’ve seen similar occurrences here in the panic buying witnessed shortly after the pandemic was declared – not to mention the flight of thousands to cottage country. Things have calmed down some, but stricter measures have had to be put in place by the province and the city to enforce the order to stay inside. 

      Candice Monson, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University, says that many Canadians are learning how to cope with stresses associated with having no social connection.

      “Many of us probably started out thinking this is going to be a short-term thing. They’re now adjusting to not having friends and liberties and realizing this is a long game.”

      She advises keeping things simple and putting aside the pressure to get things done as we learn to adjust to isolation. Monson says there's a silver lining – pandemics can lead to more social cohesion "in the realization of things we take for granted, whether it’s our families or walking the dog or how over-scheduled and over-commercialized our busy lives have become.” 

      It’s important to keep in mind, she says, that the pandemic will pass and "it won't always be like this."

      To be sure, how we re-emerge from isolation and re-integrate into our normal day-to-day once this crisis subsides will present its own challenges. 

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