Coping in uncertain times

March 29, 2020

Constant news updates during the coronavirus outbreak can be overwhelming. In the digital age, for better mental health, shift focus to things you can control: set new routines, and talk to friends


For the first time in history, we are experiencing a pandemic in the age of technology, social media and mass coverage and there is no research available yet to explain its effects and relationship with certainty. The COVID-19, first detected in December 2019, has now become a global phenomenon and has infected thousands in over 150 countries and continues to spread. While the speed with which COVID-19 is spreading is alarming, the escalating anxiety and fear this pandemic is creating is no less significantly astounding. Apprehensions about a threatening situation or feelings of being in immediate danger are not only limited to being infected, but extend to a societal level as well with uncertainty about finances and inadequate resources available in a time of crisis.

The plague or Black Death brought death to millions in the mid-1300s over several decades and loitered through centuries. Without the advantage of scientific advancement, physicians of the time used techniques like bloodletting and healthy people avoided sick persons to prevent getting sick. The panic was based on what people could see in their immediate surroundings and their own experiences. In today’s age of social media and mass coverage, we are not only living through our own experiences, but virtually sharing those of others from all over the world, creating and intensifying their negative impact on our psychological and mental well-being.

With technology, we are constantly and repeatedly bombarded with information and updates about COVID-19. Ironically, the fear itself may be driven by the fear of missing out or worries about what might happen if you’re not watching or reading the news, leading to exposure to an overwhelming amount of information. This results in feelings of anxiety, fear, and depression accompanied by hopelessness and helplessness. Constant exposure to information that depicts a real or perceived threat activates the fear centres in our brains and causes them to become overstimulated, inhibiting our ability to think rationally or regulate our emotions effectively. Thus, we may interpret every post, news, or update as a cause of concern or indicative of imminent danger steering us into a prolonged state of fight-or-flight response and negative thoughts and emotions.

The large influx of information is particularly detrimental to those with pre-existing mental health conditions, which can be easily exacerbated when exposed. Those already suffering from such conditions as obsessive compulsive disorder, for example, may find their obsessions and compulsive behaviors for cleaning and handwashing rituals intensified; people with depression may already be experiencing a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. These feelings are further enhanced when exposed to the climbing toll of infected cases without a cure; pre-existing anxiety and panic disorders, where there is already a prevalent sense of ‘something bad happening’ can instill an irrational fear of becoming sick and feelings of lack of control. In these cases, media can serve as a trigger and cause immense psychological distress.

For people suffering from psychological disorders, routine is important because it gives a sense of control and promotes functional and emotional balance. COVID-19 has disrupted routines as numerous places have closed to contain the spread of the disease and as social distancing and isolation is encouraged. These are important preventive measures, but they can be psychologically disturbing to individuals for whom isolation is disadvantageous to treatment, as in cases of depression.

We heavily rely on technology to keep us entertained and informed, not fully accounting for the ramifications accompanying it. Earlier this month, the WHO shared a few mental health considerations amid COVID-19 outbreak and advised individuals to control their amount of exposure to news and updates about the disease by limiting the number of times they check in a day and to rely on valid sources to acquire information. Misinformation and rumors can add onto to anxiety and stress leading to further psychological distress.

If we are to be isolated, with technology as our primary connection to the world and one another, we have to learn to take precautions to maintain healthy mental states. Connecting with others in supportive ways can help mitigate feelings of isolation as well as worries concerning the disease – knowing that your concerns are valid, but that you are not alone can help manage them. As we watch the number of infected cases slowly rise on our screens, and while the effect of COVID-19 is devastating on lives, it is also important to pay attention to the percentage of individuals who recover. Moreover, scientists and researchers all over the world are working on finding a vaccine to counter the spread and effect of the disease.

Oddly, COVID-19 has provided us with a unique opportunity to reshape our lives. As certain external events remain beyond our control, this is a chance to take a step back from our busy and stressful schedules and spend time with family and ourselves – a balance many are constantly striving for but rarely achieving. Shifting our focus to things that we can control, such as implementing precautions in healthy ways, and establishing new routines can be a helpful step in resetting our priorities and giving more notice to our mental well-being. In these unusual circumstances, there is no set of normal responses but it is essential to remember that taking precautions to maintain our mental well-being is just as important as it is to take precautions against COVID-19.

The writer is a practicing psychologist and works in the area of mental health for the corporate sector. She tweets @samrahhumayun

Coronavirus: A chance to shift towards a healthy lifestyle