The acutely abrupt transition from pre-COVID-19 pandemic life to suddenly having to worry about whether you can meet basic necessities such as health, finances, and food security are causing what psychologists call “collective trauma.”
In addition to the sharp transition, the uncertainty of the future – how long will COVID-19 last; what would the new normal look like – adds to emotional and psychological stress, and potentially could have long-term effects.
Studies on post-9/11 terrorist attacks revealed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was particularly significant among first-responders and NYC residents highly exposed to the attack and its aftermath. The general population, mostly through media accounting and images of the 9/11 attacks, were also impacted. There were higher incidences of life-changing events immediately following 9/11 – divorces, change of careers, moves to other cities. On the positive side, people report that 9/11 brought them closer to each other, strengthened their marriages and relationships with children and friends.
Considering how much more impactful the COVID-19 pandemic is, meaning that almost each and everyone of us has had to readjust to it in varying degrees, it will be interesting to see what studies show after this crisis is over.
Global panic and widespread forced isolation are new social features that will no doubt have implications. Already there are reports of higher incidences of domestic abuse caused by the pressures of stay-at home orders.
Psychological impact of COVID-19
Cigna 2020 Loneliness Index reports that three in five Americans report a persistent sense of loneliness, a seven-point jump from the previous 2018 study. Feelings of isolation and loneliness have been reported among heavy users of social media.
With online social media usage being relied upon for social connection during the COVID-19 pandemic because of mandatory social distancing, experts anticipate that feelings of despondency and loneliness could rise.
Experts say social isolation could have a mild impact as when people feel cabin fever. But the psychological stress this pandemic is having could have extreme detrimental effects on a person’s mental, emotional and even physical health.
Studies of social disconnectedness have found to raise health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or misusing/abusing alcohol or obesity, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University found.
“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” Holt-¬Lunstad told the American Psychological Association in 2019.
The verdict is not out or conclusive on COVID-19’s psychological long-term impact (because we’re in the thick of the crisis). But during this temporary disconnectedness, there are healthy ways to cope.
Staying emotionally healthy during COVID-19
Experts suggest a few ways to keep healthy during the crisis.
- Keep connected. Nothing beats in-person contact with our loved ones, but advanced technology can help to lessen feelings of isolation. Texting, video-chat, participating in online events can be temporary substitutes.
- Keep informed, but don’t be overwhelmed. It’s important to watch the news on TV or online to know the latest on the pandemic. But it shouldn’t be an all-engrossing obsession. Take time to do work and other things you’d normally be doing if it wasn’t for stay-at home orders.
- Exercise. Now is a good time as any to start an exercise routine. If you can’t commit to that, take frequent walks with your dog or someone else in your household. But, of course, remember to keep distance from others in the neighborhood. It’s already known that exercise helps with mental health.
- Recognize changes you might be going through. While it’s perfectly normal to show empathy and cry over the loss of life during the crisis, put a check on changes in your personality such as feelings of hopelessness (and helplessness), bursts of anger, ability to concentrate, difficulties in sleeping, changes in eating patterns, use of alcohol or other drugs, high levels of anxiety. If suicidal ideation becomes a factor, contact a health professional immediately.
Take care of yourself
Everyone reacts to stress differently. You know yourself better than anyone else. Engage in healthy coping activities that you’ve relied upon all your life to get through tough times.
It’s also not just about yourself. Be a good husband, wife, child, or friend and make sure everyone in your household or social circle is doing well.
This phrase will get overused and can be tiresome, but remember that “we’re all in this together.”