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Psychology of coronavirus pandemic

May 20, 2020 - Wednesday 4:05 AM by Atty. Jamil Matalam

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Unusual events deeply affect us psychologically. A parting from a loved one, for instance, may deeply scar some of us, affecting our behavior and outlook about life. The occurrence of disasters or calamities stresses us similarly. Anyone who has experienced a calamity knows very well how tiresome the experience is, even if it does not involve great physical exertion for some of us, such as being simply asked to leave their homes temporarily. Psychologists explain this exhaustive experience as something related to our mind’s stress response. It brings forth our fight-or-flight response. The current coronavirus pandemic, although not as imposing as a disaster, is similarly a great psychological stressor to us. In a subtle way it gravely stresses us mentally, leaving some of us psychologically exhausted. 

Psychologists point to the negative news we read and hear about the pandemic as one of the main causes of this mental stress. Of course, there is no blame here on the part of the media; the pandemic by nature is something negative. It has infected so many and killed so many as well; it cannot be reported as good news. The point here, however, is that the abundance and barrage of bad news, the deaths and extent of infection, brings us mentally closer and closer to the threat of infection. This may lead to some of us experiencing what psychologists call a chronic stress response. What this means is that our flight or fight response is activated by the crisis, making us alert most of the time and in turn exhausts us mentally. It makes us sort of panicky, although not obvious to us. We are all acting and thinking scared but unaware of it most of the time.

The psychological stress brought about by the pandemic is subtle, and as such, it also has subtle behavioral manifestations. What is activated is our basic self-preservation instincts, our fight-or-flight response. Therefore, it manifests behaviors that are somewhat unkind or suspicious of another person. Someone coughs and the least we do is to think that they are infected and we avoid them. The worst is that we get angry at that person, or just simply get angry. In some cases, there is a refusal to reason out things. In one case, a cooperative of rice farmers were not allowed by a local government unit to transport their cavans of rice outside the municipality. The reason only was that the local government unit was speculating that they may run out of supply, but no supporting data was provided. The farmers reasoned out to deaf ears, and had to bear the unreasonable burden of not being able to sell their produce. Simply put, this pandemic has stressed us out severely, and has brought out a disagreeable side in some of us.

This stress also impairs our problem-solving skills. The current situation is so overwhelming that we think we cannot do anything about it. We find the situation too much to bear, unless we step back and compose ourselves. The situation is undeniably bad, but it will be much worse if we do not respond to it wisely, if the stress gets the best of us. It does not help us find ways to make the best things possible amidst this cruel and heartless crisis. We might just end up making things worse than they already are. It makes most of us only agitated. We have to be calm and composed to find productive activities within the constraints brought about by the pandemic.

We have to accept that the situation is really bad, and it will be here for a while. Otherwise, expecting that this crisis will be over soon will only agitate and stress us out more. There is nothing to get so excited about too soon. First, we have to admit, not deny, that things are messed up right now. Then and only then can we start to think of ways not only to make things less bad but to also find solutions to the crisis. We realize that this crisis does not at all call for a fight-or-flight response in us, which only stresses us, but rather to respond to it in a wise and calm manner. In this way we see all the things that are happening right now with compassion, rather than with hate and dismissiveness.

It would be helpful if news reporting or journalism also focuses on productive or solution-related matters rather than on the severity of the pandemic. The least such news can give us is a model on how to cope with the pandemic amidst the lockdowns; at most, inspiration to be productive. We should avoid dwelling too much about the sadness of our situation. Stories about resilience and love during this crisis, news that brings hope and good spirits in us, are what most of us need right now.