Psychological impact of COVID-19 and what to do about it

Belinda Bantham -- Tue, 03/24/2020 - 09:52

Psychological impact of COVID-19 and what to do about it

Two psychologists from the NWU say that, against the background of the current situation regarding COVID-19, it is evident that different individuals respond to this crisis in different ways.

Mr Rümando Kok and Prof Pieter Kruger, both senior clinical psychologists at the Institute of Psychology and Wellbeing (IPW) in the Centre for Health and Human Performance (CHHP) at the North-West University’s campus in Potchefstroom, explain that it is understandable that a large number of people have experienced an increase in their anxiety levels – not only in South Africa, but also globally.

“Anxiety is defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome. Although the threat is real, and people have unfortunately passed away as a result of the virus, the psychological risk in this situation is that our thinking styles can significantly exacerbate the already delicate situation in which we find ourselves.”

They say that, in reality, according to the international research community, an estimated 95% of people who contract the virus will have only mild to moderate symptoms, but the psychological effect of the current pandemic may in fact have a severe impact on the mental health of people around the globe. “This is not so much the overestimation of the chances that you may contract the virus (with the South African government suggesting that around 70–80% of all South Africans will contract the virus), but rather our underestimation of our ability to deal with it.”

According to Mr Kok and Prof Kruger, anxiety with regard to contracting the virus and our inability to deal with it is one part of the problem.

“A further problem we are now facing is the consequences of the government’s strategies (rightly so) to contain the virus. This includes self-isolation, social distancing and even being in quarantine. These unnatural and sudden forced changes in behaviour are creating a new set of mental health challenges.”

How do we deal with the lack of routine, potential boredom, being geographically confined to a limited area and the inability to engage with certain support groups in a face-to-face situation? “People cannot participate in team sports like they used to do, go to the gym or freely go out to bars, cinemas and restaurants to get relief from their daily stressors. We are also confined in close quarters with immediate family members or house mates, and this can put a significant strain on relationships, leading to further mental health challenges. Also, although many people will have the ability to work from home, telecommunication will bring frustration and challenges of its own, such as miscommunication, issues with connectivity and the health challenges relating to sitting in front of a computer all day long.”

They say that against this backdrop it is therefore important to find ways of adjusting our mindsets to the new reality, at least for the time being. “We need to be able to distinguish between controllable and uncontrollable factors. Individually, we have no control over the protocols and directives issued by the government, and we are expected to adhere to them. We cannot control the virus, nor the impact it will have on a lot of people. What we can control, however, is how we react to the current situation. We can be victims, or we can make the best of the situation.”

Mr Kok and Prof Kruger explain that focusing on the factors that can be controlled, such as behaviour and thought processes, will not only give people a potential new routine and a clear focus, but it will stop them from constantly thinking worst-case-scenario thoughts and will definitely lower the levels of uncertainty – and therefore their anxiety.

“Even though the consequences of COVID-19 are far-reaching and already tangible, this does not mean that we are hopeless and powerless. For those essential services personnel who are exempted from the lockdown and still have to make their way to the office, strict precautionary measures need to be applied in order to keep the working environment safe for everyone involved. For those who apply the principles of social distancing and working from home, it is deemed important to maintain some meaningful interpersonal connections during this time and to ensure that day-to-day life is characterised by purposeful and meaningful activities. If we look at this in an innovative way, it creates time for meaningful family interaction and connection (something that is scarce in modern times).”

They say examples of such activities would include sitting around a table and having a meal together, playing board games, laughing and having fun together or playing sport in the yard.

“In order for us to address the issue of COVID-19, it is inevitable that we need to put in a concerted effort to do things differently, not only on an individual level, but also on a systematic level. It is necessary that, as a community, we unite and reach consensus in our approach in order to function from a similar point of view. This is not a time to panic or to create unnecessary fear, but we must also not be ignorant of or deny this global threat. It is a time when we need to stand together, be cautious and look after ourselves and others.”

Practical suggestions to deal with the anxiety include:

1. Have a plan. Mentally worrying about contracting the virus is like sitting in a rocking chair – it gives you something to do, but it takes you nowhere. Therefore, be more proactive: follow clear health behaviours, wash your hands, avoid crowded places and follow the government’s lockdown instructions – but do not sit in the proverbial rocking chair all day long. Have a plan for approaching the situation!

2. Focus on what matters: Take up a few passions and hobbies that you seldom have time for (within reason), build relationships, read more and get enough rest, etc. There are many important things we can still do in these times. Focus on the things that matter most to you in life!

3. Keep your perspective: Although the threat is real, do not underestimate the human body’s ability to fight off a virus – especially if you are healthy with no underlying health problems. It is probable that 95% of all people contracting the virus will have only mild to moderate symptoms and will recover in a short space of time. The situation is bound to change at some point. We have to stay strong through the early months, as humans will start building natural immunity (known as herd immunity) over time. In the meantime, be sensible, but do not stop living. Focus on the things over which you have control.

Rümando Kok.

Prof Pieter Kruger.