The best and the worst: The psychology of COVID-19

March 15, 2020

By: Keri Dequine Harden

Originally appeared in the Steamboat Pilot

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Disasters — whether natural, manmade or a combination of both — tend to bring out the best and the worst in humanity.

A tornado or a hurricane is an event that happens quickly, with a long recovery. They are geographical disasters that most directly and severely effect people in that area.

A pandemic presents a very different threat — one that has geographic, economic, physical and psychological impacts. It is an invisible enemy, full of unknowns and uncertainties. It is a silent, mostly hidden invader.

While the novel coronavirus — COVID-19 — appears deadlier for older people than young, it does not discriminant by skin color, education or economics.

It is frightening for many, as are the broader economic and societal implications. So how can we best manage the fear, stress and anxiety?

Nathan Mesnikoff, director of spiritual care with UCHealth, described how things that seem scary and uncontrollable light up certain areas of the human brain.

“We tend to pay attention to what is dangerous, fast or unpredictable,” he said.

The body’s fight-or-flight system was originally designed to “help you escape a Saber-tooth tiger,” he said. Something like a pandemic is very different.

“We are not evolved to deal with stress that lasts longer and doesn’t always directly affect us,” Mesnikoff said. “Our brains don’t know how to make that distinction.”

In a situation like the COVID -19 outbreak, our brains often go toward the worst-case scenario, said Dr. Joanne Grace, spiritual care and bereavement coordinator for Northwest Colorado Health.

When we do things like panic over our toilet paper supply, “we are striving for survival,” she said.

Even though statistically, people are much more likely to die in a car accident, our brains aren’t very good at factual risk assessment, Mesnikoff said. Driving a car is familiar. Coronavirus is not.

At the same times, the concerns about COVID-19 are legitimate.

But it is important to look at what can be controlled, he said.

“Focus on what the actual facts are and what the actual risks are and what we can do about them,” Mesnikoff said.

In itself, anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing, he said.

“It’s the brain’s way of getting the body to pay attention,” he said. We don’t have to “shame ourselves for being worried.”

“Accept anxiety as an integral part of human experience,” said Mental Health Colorado President and CEO Vincent Atchity in a news release. “Try not to overestimate the threat or underestimate how well you can cope and adapt. We tend to exaggerate the danger of unfamiliar situations.”

 Managing fear and anxiety
  • Exercise — burn off that extra energy
  • Eat well — fear and anxiety can lead to salt and sugar cravings
  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Focus on what you can control
  • Limit your media diet
  • Avoid using intoxicants in excess
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Take deep breaths
  • Talk with a friend
  • Take time to pause and reflect on what is most important to you
  • Help someone who may feel alone or is most vulnerable to the virus

However, how that anxiety manifests itself can have negative impacts.

“You don’t want anxiety to drive bad decisions or panic,” he said.

Because the body and brain are intrinsically connected, anxiety can manifest itself physically. Symptoms include fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, muscle tension and shaking. It can also lead to forgetfulness and feeling like your brain isn’t working quite right.

It’s also important to stay connected to others and keep a bigger community perspective, Atchity said.

“As our fear levels increase, we tend to turn more and more inside ourselves,” he explained.

However, thinking on more of a community level can actually make us safer, he said.

Dr. Rebecca Richey, a psychologist at UCHealth Women’s Integrated Services in Health — Anschutz Medical Campus said that acknowledgement of fear is key.

“It is not an irrational fear to be scared of this illness,” she said.

But it is important to determine how much of the fear is warranted. Richey works a lot in cognitive behavior therapy. That involves going through a thought-analysis process.

First, you identify what the thought is and then what the evidence is to support that thought, she said. From there, she helps people come up with an alternate, or more balanced, thought.

Activating the fight-or-flight system puts people on high alert all the time, Richey said. New information is coming in all the time and it can deplete a person’s energy reserves, she added.

Like Mesnikoff, Richey advises people to focus on what they can do and try to focus on positives amid challenging circumstances.

Richey said she is concentrating on taking her own advice. She’s had to cancel her own family vacation.

Be physically active, preferably outside, where the sounds and sights of the natural world, and the sunshine, can help put the drama of our human world in a healthier perspective.

Mental Health Colorado President and CEO Vincent Atchity

“Instead of focusing on my disappointment, I’m focusing on my family and spending time with them,” Richey said. “And we are doing a kitchen remodel with the vacation money.”

Grace advises keeping a routine wherever you can and spending more time doing things you know help calm your brain.

“Stay busy and engaged in the necessary activities of life,” Atchity said. “Make a conscious effort to be present to your immediate tasks and surroundings. Avoid consuming toxic amounts of information about things over which you have no control. Be physically active, preferably outside, where the sounds and sights of the natural world, and the sunshine, can help put the drama of our human world in a healthier perspective.”