Updated: Apr 24, 2020
As information about the new coronavirus streams through our TVs, computers and smartphones, it’s bombarding our brains and our nervous systems and setting us up for post-trauma reactions. Our lives have physically changed now and forever, and from a psychological point of view, so have we. We are having to adapt to a new form of diminished social engagement, dramatically scaled-down goods and services, unprecedented unemployment rates, and a worldwide fear of illness and the often unspoken fear of death.
These new circumstances are accompanied by new emotions. As feelings of loneliness, separateness and isolation have increased, so too has our collective sense of helplessness because no one knows when restrictions on our social lifestyle will be lifted. Feelings of loneliness have instigated feelings of grief as well. Feeling confined or isolated increase stress hormones which interferes with the critical functioning of our immune system. In addition, pre-existing psychological issues are exacerbated, and earlier unresolved emotional traumas are being stimulated. Our need for emotional literacy is now greater than it’s ever been before. Many people are experiencing chronic fear, which is different from chronic stress. Living with chronic fear can affect cognition, make it more difficult to regulate our emotions, and have a direct impact upon our physical health. Being in the midst of a pandemic alerts the brain that an external stimulus poses a threat. This can be especially true for people with chronic illness or environmentally acquired illness. The physiologic and neurologic consequences of chronic fear are enormous. Chronic fear directly initiates the release of stress hormones related to the brain’s hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, and instigates chronic exposure to the steroid hormone cortisol, which negatively affects the immune system. Our need for exercise is more important than ever as it helps to mobilize some of our stuck or difficult feelings, such as fear, and boosts the resilience of our immune system. Given our current status of unpredictability and fear, widespread trauma reactions such as increased anxiety and depression are likely to be the norm post-COVID-19. There’s already a surge in depression, anxiety and numerous other neuropsychiatric conditions as a result of the psychological impact of the pandemic. There’s also evidence that the COVID-19 virus affects the brain and nervous system in some patients and this is being studied at several clinics around the world. The result of all this is that the coronavirus is reducing our ability to relax. It’s impacting our financial status, our livelihoods, the food we eat and our intimate relationships. For some, the pandemic is challenging the very root of our faith. People all over the world are shaken to the bone, and we are all being reconfigured psychologically and cognitively. We think differently now, and we feel differently as well.
Despite all this, there is a beauty
embedded within this pandemic in the form of global attunement. We have the opportunity to share the most vulnerable parts of our humanity, and we are doing it globally. All of us are aware of being in closer proximity to illness and the possibility of dying or losing someone we love. Though physically and socially separated, we’re profoundly connected. To me, it feels like a big wake-up call, and it is time to answer the call.
Psychology of the Pandemic
Many of us are experiencing common emotions, including anxiety and fear fueled by our inability to control the future. Depression, sadness and even helplessness emerge from social isolation, loneliness and a feeling of unpredictability. Below, I’ve listed some psychological characteristics of people living through this pandemic. However, keep in mind that each of us reacts differently based on our life experiences and personal histories. For instance, I noticed that I was initially minimizing the pandemic, but I soon realized that minimizing issues is my typical coping strategy. Someone else might tend to over-dramatize situations, making them more dire than they really are. I have found a balance.
1. Time distortion: It’s normal to have a warped perception of time during traumatic times. Some time-estimation models suggest that during high-arousal situations we feel that time is going more slowly because we expect the outcome to be more stressful. So, if you’re anticipating a threatening or worrisome outcome, your time perception may be distorted.
2. Magnified hypervigilance: If you’ve experienced a traumatic event prior to COVID-19, it’s likely your brain and body are already on heightened alert. You may feel more vulnerable, and the threat of the virus is thus amplified. When the brain is overwhelmed, pre-existing worries or traumas can rear up because the new stressor uncovers an underlying hypervigilance that might have been there all along. For instance, if you experienced early-childhood trauma, your nervous system developed around fear and vigilance. As a child, being hyper-alert helped you adapt to your environment. As an adult, threatening situations can cause you to relive that childhood feeling of lack of control. This pandemic is an existential trauma, so many people are saying “I’m familiar with this,” “I’ve been here before” or “I know what it is to be unsafe.” Many are worried and hungry, unable to find resources to buy food. This is part of the current reality. 3. Paradoxical emotional reactions: Another interesting psychological phenomenon of the pandemic is that some people accustomed to struggling with mental health are adapting to these unsettling times more easily than those who haven’t experienced those challenges before. For instance:
Some people who suffered from anxiety before the pandemic are feeling calmer during the pandemic. For many with social anxiety, sheltering at home is a relief.
Those with obsessive fears about cleanliness or germs may be feeling reassured now that everyone is washing their hands and cleaning surfaces and objects.
People who previously felt alone with their sadness and grief may sense they’re now in good company with others who are also experiencing loss, helplessness and grief.
Obsessive symptoms such as hoarding, excessive cleaning, or constant rearranging of things are considered “normal” these days, so some people with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) are doing much better with the imposed external controls such as hand washing, mask wearing and physical distancing. Some are panic shopping, buying a lot of food or toilet paper.
With non-essential stores, restaurants and movie theaters closed, many people are describing a feeling of relief—even hidden joy—because they have a break from shopping for anything other than groceries. Instead of racing around to stores, appointments or social obligations, they are rediscovering life’s simplicity and calm. The silver lining of the pandemic is that most of us can slow our stride as we walk in our neighborhoods.
4. Negativity bias: We are all wired for “negativity”—for detecting when something is wrong or a situation is dangerous. Our nervous systems evolved to keep us alive and surviving, which means vigilantly scanning our environment for danger. Being sensitive to potential threats is an invaluable survival strategy, but in this time of pandemic, when the danger of contracting or spreading the coronavirus is widespread, our natural “threat detectors” tend to go off and manifest as negativity. To lower that negative vigilance, we can focus our attention on something that interests us, something novel that we’ve always wanted to do, or something creative like coloring, which helps us use a part of our brain that takes us out of our negativity bias and into a sense of hopefulness.
Tips for Emotional Wellness in the Time of COVID-19
There are many things you can do to feel better and build emotional resilience and become more embodied so that you stay mentally well and physically healthy.
Eat regular meals and avoid stimulants such as sugar or caffeine, which can overstimulate your nervous system.
Avoid stress eating and junk-food binges It’s easy to regress into comfort eating when we’re nervous and live next to the refrigerator. The other thing to know is that the health of the lining of your gut is directly related to the health of your blood-brain barrier, the complex matrix of cells that protects your brain.
Get plenty of sleep. Allow time for savoring the routine of relaxing and preparing for bed. The brain has a cleaning system that’s active during nighttime sleep, so sleep for the sake of clearing your brain of toxins. Try to be consistent with the time you awaken each morning to solidify a regular circadian rhythm. This is good for your brain.
Move your body often. Even if you can’t get outdoors, stretch, take an online yoga or exercise class, walk up and down the stairs, dance around the living room to your favorite music. Movement stimulates growth factors in the brain, which act like fertilizer for neurons and supports immune health.
Chronic stress and anxiety directly impact hormones like cortisol, which has a deleterious impact upon neural structures and the immune system. Examine your fears, validate your feelings and share your worries with others. Journal your feelings.
Punctuate your day with embodied grounding rituals such as gardening, touching a tree or walking in nature. Use your senses, feel your body.
Distract yourself from global problems by focusing on a productive or creative task such as cooking a meal; drawing, painting or coloring; cleaning out a closet; playing games or watching a funny movie (it’s important to give yourself permission to laugh, even in the midst of sadness and grief). These activities engage parts of your brain that take you out of fight/flight/freeze mode, and out of a trance of trauma.
Focus on the present moment and avoid ruminating. Projecting into the future tends to heighten anxiety. Meditation and prayer help you orient to the present moment.
Engage with something new that you’re interested in. The brain reconfigures itself by wiring new pathways when it’s focusing on something novel.
Connect with others. Hug people you are quarantining with, and do it often. One of my mentors, Stan Tatkin, author of Your Brain on Love, teaches a specific type of hug that lasts long enough for both people to feel attuned to each other before they release the hug.
And what about loving and serving others? We are rich when we’re helping another person through a difficult time. Reach out and ask for help from a friend, from a higher power, from a long-lost grandparent, aunt or uncle. They might be helpful in supporting you—and you, in turn, can support them. If you know any frontline workers, support them with your love and gratitude and help them find resources.
Many of us are feeling the unrest associated with not being able to predict the future. The truth is, we are never able to foresee life’s outcomes. We are just looking for more reassurance and stability now, so we are yearning for predictability. Ask yourself, “How can I make myself feel safer and more reassured today?” Do whatever you can, whatever feels stabilizing in the moment. Creating a daily ritual can help with creating predictability even in a small way. Lighting a candle in silence. Slowing it down and orienting to something beautiful with conscious awareness is good for alleviating trauma. Reading books or magazines forces your brain to use different neural pathways than looking at a screen.
Go for a walk. Find a piece of nature. Look at a tree with small green leaves and then gaze up at the sky. Find a blossom; look at all the possibilities in that blossom. Remember that you too are filled with unlimited possibilities for growth, transformation and unfolding. Especially now. I’ll leave you with this fascinating tidbit, which might motivate us to look at each other a bit differently now: Some indigenous people of the Bering Strait greet one another by saying “Hello, my other self” in their native language. This seems like a very appropriate greeting for each of us in this new era of globally shared common human experience.
Disclaimer: The sole purpose of this content is to educate and inform. Please note that none of the content on this website constitutes medical, psychotherapeutic, or other professional advice or services. We provide consultations and require that all patients be followed closely by their primary care provider.