Everybody Hurts, Sometimes: Psychological Responses to COVID-19

March 30, 2020
Posted in Guidance
March 30, 2020 Michaela Young

During the last month we have all experienced significant changes to our lives.  Most of us have gone from travelling or relaxing over the February break, to some uneasy weeks with a sense of impending change, to transitioning swiftly to a distance learning plan, to a complete lock down.  Some of us have traveled to other countries, all of us are separated from loved ones in some way. Some of us are facing financial struggles. Others are afraid for their health or the health of loved ones. Every day we read the news and see the numbers increasing and some sort of changes from the authorities.  Physically, socially, emotionally and psychologically, this situation takes its toll. Of course, most of us continue to cope very well considering the situation and continue to look positively. However, we are all affected in one way or another. The effects of these changes on our mental health can be categorized into three broad reactions: fear reactions, adjustment difficulties and grief.  Some of us may experience one or more of these types of reactions.

Fear reactions involve a number of physical and psychological responses that occur in the body when we are afraid of something.  These are an evolutionary defense system which help us to survive when there is a threat to our lives. They are broadly described as the “Fight, flight or freeze responses”.  Over the past few months, we have read about Covid-19 and for some of us, the fear has built up over time as we have seen the impact it has had in different countries. As this fear builds up, we may respond with fight, flight and/or freeze responses.  Some of us may be angry at authorities or at others for their responses to the events, become hyper-vigilant at checking the news for updates, or stockpiling groceries. Some of us may channel that “fight” energy into the things we have control over, such as washing our hands and sharing articles on social media.  Some of us may have a tendency towards a “flight” response, which could involve social withdrawal or avoidance of healthy activities such as exercise. Some of us may have a “freeze” response which could look like taking longer to implement behavior changes such as social distancing, or struggling to accept the changes to our situation. 

It’s important to note that these reactions are completely natural and understandable.  They are our bodies’ natural defense systems and have evolved for reasons of survival. However, sometimes we need to tame this system to keep ourselves healthy.  We need focus on the ways of protecting ourselves that are in our control: e.g. social distancing and hand washing. But beyond that, we have to remind ourselves that we are keeping ourselves safe and find ways to calm and nurture ourselves.  There are many resources out there for this, and we have shared several on the Counselor resource page.  The cruel irony of our natural defense system is that if we stay in fight or flight mode for too long, then this can have a negative impact on our immune system.  Exercise, connection, kindness, healthy eating and creative activities are some key suggestions of ways to tame our fight/flight system.

Adjustment difficulties are another natural response to the current situation.  Adjustment disorder involves psychological, physical and emotional reactions to a stressful life event.  These include feeling sad or overwhelmed by emotions, feeling anxious, difficulties concentrating, anger or irritability, problems with appetite or sleep, relationship difficulties, avoiding work or other commitments. It is normal to experience some of these difficulties when we have had a significant disruption to our lives. Some of us may already be experiencing some of these difficulties and may be struggling to adjust to these disruptions and changes to our lives.  Some of us may feel fine now but may experience adjustment difficulties later. It is normal to experience these things. However, if they create a significant disturbance to your life or last for more than one month, then it is useful to talk with a health professional. AISB Counselors are a good place to start with discussing these difficulties and assisting you to find help.

The final response that many of us are feeling, or may develop over the coming months is grief.  Grief is complex and comes in many forms. We may be grieving what we have already lost, and we may also be experiencing anticipatory grief, which involves a sense of uncertainty about things to come and impending doom.  Grief involves complex psychological, emotional and physical reactions. According to David Kessler, one of the authors of the well known theory of the five stages of grief, our grief involves five separate stages which may happen sequentially or may happen simultaneously or haphazardly.  Firstly we may have denial, and may have thoughts such as “it won’t affect me”, “it’s just a flu” and so on. We may experience anger – at our leaders or at people seemingly doing the wrong thing.  We may try bargaining: “if everyone social distances for two weeks then we will be able to go back to normal afterwards”. We may experience significant sadness when we come to terms with the changes in our lives or when we struggle to see the end to the situation.  The final stage is described as acceptance, when we come to terms with what is happening and find a way to regain control over our lives.

These responses are all completely normal.  However, this doesn’t change the significant impact they have on our lives. By understanding what we are going through, we can start to understand how to move towards acceptance and find ways to cope and even thrive in this situation.  The most important thing right now is to look after our own, our family’s and our community’s mental health and well being. We need to check in with ourselves and our community and talk about how we are feeling.  Exercise, meditation, connection with loved ones using video technology, creative activities, fun, games, quiet time, relaxation, yoga, learning a new skill, cooking, listening to music and routine will all be important over the coming weeks.  

AISB Counseling Support

Please reach out to the counseling team if you ever want to talk about how to cope with current events. We are all in this together and will get through together.