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Social Psychology Amid COVID-19

This article was first published on the American Airlines Aeromedical Department website by:

Dr Ed Miles, 
APA Pilot Assistance Manager
Published April 10, 2020 

Psychological and Social Psychology Factors Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Dr. ED MILES

Human Beings Are Not Made for Social Isolation

• We are made to get close to others during stressful, fearful times. This is how we are hard-wired. We exchange information, share our concerns and strategies. This sends the signal that “We can do it. We can and will get through this together.” We do NOT tend to socially isolate ourselves.

• This is why suicide rates will likely drop during the current pandemic. This is a typical occurrence during natural disasters, because it is a matter of surviving. But later, when we realize what has been destroyed by an event and that life must go on, then things can become dicey.

• Social solidarity increases during hard times. Communities that undergo disasters rarely descend into chaos. Rather, social solidarity actually increases and communities come together.

• Humans evolved to overcome hardship. The association between “threat” and “solidarity” is not random. Cooperating to overcome threats is a defining feature of homo sapiens. Humans desire obstacles to overcome.

• Electronic communication and virtual means are terrific; however, try eating a virtual apple when you are hungry. It doesn’t tend to reduce those hunger pangs.

• Domestic violence has increased by 20% to 35%. At the same time, child abuse complaints or calls to the child abuse hotlines have dropped by 20% to 25%. Why? We see this same pattern in the summers, and it is because teachers, school officials, physicians are not seeing the children and reporting the abuse. In other words, the drop does NOT signify that there is a decrease in terms of child abuse. It is just not reported.

Doubling Down on Vices

• Alcohol sales has increased by 243%.

• Marijuana sales are increasing.

• Porn consumption is up by 6.4%.

• People are eating more and gaining weight and exercising less.

• Gaming platforms posted their best revenue-generating month in March 2020.

• In Mexico, there has been a run on beer due to fear of government stopping beer sales.

Why is Crime Plummeting?

1. So many people are sheltering in place, crimes of opportunities are dropping. There are fewer potential victims out there. This is episodic rather than a long-term trend.

2. Police around the country have directed the cops to stop arresting people for low-level crimes.

3. Nevertheless, burglaries and assaults are down 18% to 24%. Shootings are down 30%. Evidently, criminals are afraid of COVID-19 too.

4. Crime rates fell during the Great Recession of 2008 and during the Great Depression. America’s worst economic period did not produce a rise in crime but a decrease.

Guns and Ammunition

• Guns sales are up 276%. It is not unusual for the sale of guns and ammunition to go up when people are panicked. Gun sales typically spike after elections and amid natural disasters, and following major crime stories in the news.

• Gun buyers, many of them purchasing weapons for the first time, appear to be acting on the assumption that mass unemployment will lead to desperation. This perceived desperation further escalates everyone’s anxiety and fear; purchasing a gun makes them feel safer.

Stress During Coronavirus Can Elevate Risk

• People who are in quarantine may experience boredom, anger, and loneliness. If any of the physical symptoms of COVID-19 appear, it may also cause worsening cognitive distress and anxiety. During previous disasters, there were several psychiatric comorbidities reported such as depression, panic attacks, and psychomotor excitement.

• Home quarantine is the number one factor that increases the prevalence of medical practitioners developing brief/acute PTSD as they display increased sleep and numbness disorders. Depression, anxiety, and burnout after the cessation of infectious outbreaks is common. This was demonstrated in 18% to 57% of medical providers during the ebola outbreak.

Control is a huge concern. During a pandemic, we are constantly reminded that we do NOT have control ― or, at the most, we have little control. We cannot shoot those pesky viruses; we can’t gas or electrocute them out of our lives. However, human beings are constantly trying to control things. This is particularly true for those in demanding occupations that require a great deal of control (e.g. piloting an aircraft).

• Anxiety: Anxiety will NOT kill you, but the current catastrophic news triggers circular thinking, sadness, irritability, and sometimes anger. It can demand much more energy to prevent or contain stored “fear memories” from becoming too strong. Stress can weaken the anxiety control centers AND the body’s immune system.

• Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Styles and/or Disorders: There is a constant call for meticulous hand hygiene, which is a breeding ground for irresistible urges to wash or carry out constant checking routines. It is a diffuse fear because we do NOT see viruses; we can only fantasize about them and all the places they could be. It is a frantic effort to gain control in what appears to be an out-of-control situation.

• Depression: Typically, depression tends to raise its head after the medical or mere survival piece is over. At least, that’s what happened in previous disasters. However, 1 in 5 households have already reported someone being laid off or having their hours reduced because of the response. The sudden loss of everyday routines can lead to social withdrawal and loss of daily structure. There is robust scientific literature on the link between unemployment and higher suicide rates, and this can be a strong predictor of suicide death. When you include unstable employment, the predictor becomes even better. In other words, when it’s no longer a matter of surviving, how will our life go on when one takes into account everything that we have lost or will likely lose? We are afraid of the unknown, the loneliness, afraid of what might happen.

This all seems negative, doesn’t it? We are helpless, afraid, not in control, angry, distressed and possibly economically devastated.

How do we avoid falling into that trap of being passive, reactive, and simply waiting for someone or something to swoop in and fix it for us? Call in those refrigerated 16-wheel morgues we see on TV? Absolutely NOT!

STRESS AND ANXIETY DURING CORONAVIRUS

1. Please remember, anxiety will NOT kill you! Anxiety is simply the body’s response to keep you alert in the event that you encounter something with the potential to hurt you. Just remember, anxiety will not kill you. If you want to fret, worry, and try to control everything around you, have at it. Additionally, it is difficult to stay on HIGH ALERT for long periods of time without exhausting yourself. See for yourself:

            a. Set aside 20-30 minutes a day to do nothing but worry. No distractions, no comforts, just full-on panic.

            b. If you allow yourself to do this, we’d be surprised if you were able to do nothing but worry for the full 20 minutes.

2. Anxiety is a fear-based response that is exacerbated by feeling out of control, so it may help to write down what you are afraid of. As the saying goes, “if you can name it [your fear], you can tame it.”

            c. Sort out the things you can control and how you might be able to control them.

            d. Write down what you feel like you cannot control and there will be a great many of these. Does it really make sense to fret, worry, and be afraid of these things?

3. Turn off most of the news on television. Most television “news” only incites more fear with unqualified opinions or speculation serving to buy time until the next “big event.” Limit yourself to two30 minute segments a day, and do this with your phone as well. Much of social media is simply people sharing their fear and seeking comfort from others. Personally, I suggest NPR for news right now as it is delivered in a responsible manner and not “hyped.” The CDC and WHO websites are excellent resources for scientifically-valid health information. Fact based information is what we are talking about here, not what people think may happen.

4. Exercise is important for physical health and brain health. Go for a walk, increase your daily workout, and remember, you do not have to go to a gym to get good exercise. You can google “home exercises” and get just as good as workout which limits your exposure to others aka “social distancing.” I’m sure YouTube is full of Richard Simmons dance workouts just waiting for you! (By the way, it’s is impossible to laugh and be anxious at the same time…so definitely find a Richard Simmons workout.)

5. Ensure that you have basic supplies (e.g. water, food, etc). You don’t need to buy up everything, but do you have a reasonable supply? The coronavirus is not being passed through community water supplies by the way!

6. There are websites that can help you with breathing exercises and meditation (e.g. headspace.com; self-compassion.org) that are free.

7. It is important that you do not get “bored” and completely isolate yourself. Self-quarantine does not mean isolation! Isolation only increases your fear and you can call friends, family, members of your church, etc. These support systems are crucial. Comfort provided by others is a basic human need, and during these unusual circumstances our need for support dramatically increases. So get on the phone at the very least and TALK. After all, everybody else in the world is experiencing precisely what you are experiencing. You are NOT alone.

8. Loneliness and isolation can actually increase one’s depression and lower your body’s defenses. You can ease these feelings and the negative impact on your immune system by reaching out to significant others. “Blowing off steam” can actually enhance your immune system.

9. Laughing and humor has repeatedly been shown to enhance one’s ability to fight off infections, decrease depression, and besides—it feels better to laugh and chuckle rather than sitting around feeling stressed and depressed. Watch a funny movie, tell jokes to friends, read funny stories, comics…you get the idea.

10. Stressing about finances can be real but remember, most of us are in that same boat. Which brings us to this last point: Even though some of us must “self-quarantine” and many of us will be isolated, we are all on the same uncertain train, and we cannot forget that it is better when we work together for the common good. If you need a place to focus, focus on how you can help yourself and others.

Manage Your Mental Health When Isolating Yourself

1. Create a New Routine: To maintain a sense of control, this is an opportunity to make some long-awaited changes in your daily routine, or you can simply modify your existing one.

2. Re-examine Your Habits: Were your old habits or schedules making you happy? This is an opportunity to create new ones.

3. Reach Out to People, Utilize Your Relationships: Do what it takes to stay feeling connected to others. Even if you are an introvert or a “loner,” that doesn’t matter. Reach out because we are social creatures and we NEED to communicate. It makes us feel better. They have “virtual bars” where you can drink “alone together” or Netflix parties that include group chats so you can watch movies “alone together.”

4. Check in With Your Emotions Every Few Hours: How do you feel? Do you need to do something nice for your body? For others? Maybe just open a window to let some fresh air in.

5. Take Time to Appreciate What You Have: Research has shown that taking time out to recognize and experience what you have in life can boost your mood, lower your stress levels, strengthen your immune system, feel a stronger social connection, lower your blood pressure, and make you feel like you can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Remember what was said earlier: Human beings thrive on overcoming obstacles. Well, after this is over, ALL of us will be trying to overcome numerous obstacles. This is called “fun” (e.g. like trying to improve your golf score, even though most of us cannot).

6. Stop Watching So Much News and Read This Instead:

100 things to do while stuck inside due to a pandemic

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