You may not have signed up to be in an experiment…but we are all in one. This pandemic is the largest psychologic experiment in history to test human resilience under adversity. It will test all races, religions, genders, ages and socioeconomic settings. This virus spans all countries and has no borders. It effects everyone…everywhere!
As many as two thirds of people recover from difficult experiences without prolonged psychological effects, even if they have lived through extreme events like prisoner of war or violent crimes. But the other third suffer real psychological distress that can last for months or even years.
Even if most people prove resilient, the sheer numbers involved have experts warning of a mental illness “tsunami.” COVID-19 has disrupted so many peoples’ lives with the threat of disease, loneliness of isolation, loss of loved ones, repercussions of job loss and ongoing uncertainty about when the pandemic will end. Suicide deaths by health care professionals are a chilling reminder of the risks that are still present.
Epidemiologist Daisy Fancourt of University College London began a study in mid-March that grew to include more than 85,000 UK residents. They tracked depression, anxiety, stress and loneliness week by week. Six weeks in it was found that levels of depression were significantly higher than before the pandemic. In China, the first nationwide large-scale survey was taken where the crisis hit earliest and found that almost 35 percent reported psychological distress.
Generally, those with previous diagnosed mental health illness, those who live alone and younger people were reporting the highest level of depression and anxiety. Interestingly, there was a decrease in anxiety levels once the lockdown was declared. “Uncertainty tends to make things worse” according to Fancourt. Some people tend to find ways to carry on while others are frozen by not knowing what is to come.
Another study showed worrisome findings in older adults. Most adults older than 65 have better emotional well-being. This could be due to the fact that seniors have lived through more than younger people and had more time to develop skills for dealing with stress. Also many have retired and are less concerned about work. On the other hand, some seniors understand the higher likelihood of getting sick and of losing loved ones. Some are fearful of going out and fearful of anyone coming to their front door. They are also not as tech-savvy so it is difficult for them to get the information they need.
Successful coping in a crisis means continuing to function and engaging in day-to-day activities. Strategies that buffer the effects of stress include getting enough sleep, observing a routine, getting outside and enjoying nature, exercising, eating well and maintaining strong social connections. Spending time on projects and solving problems, even small ones that provides a sense of purpose are important. Factors that predict resilience are optimism, the ability to keep perspective, strong social support and flexible thinking. People who believe they can cope do, in fact, tend to cope better.
Also, in previous work by psychologist Anita DeLongis of the University of British Columbia who studies psychosocial responses to disease, those who are high in empathy are more likely to engage in appropriate health behaviors such as social distancing. They also have better mental health outcomes than people who are low on empathy. Her COVID-19 study will follow people’s behavior and attitudes for months to capture changes in empathy and coping over time. DeLongis says that empathy can be learned and encouraged with proper messaging, and depending how you respond will determine health behaviors and coping mechanisms.
Reference: Denworth, L. “The Biggest Psychological Experiment: What Can The Pandemic Teach Us About How People Respond to Adversity?”. Scientific American. July 2020, p 40-45.