Coronavirus: The psychological impact and 16 ways to keep a clear head

People with mental health issues are also a vulnerable group we must not overlook

We have been bombarded with reports of coronavirus (also known as Covid-19) by news reports, social media, health organisations and general talk. Our brains have been absorbing a massive amount of information and statistics. And we are catapulted into making decisions about whether to go on holidays, attend public gatherings, work from home, check out symptoms, what to tell our children and so forth.

We fear escalation of cases and hear about lockdown in northern Italy, and the partial one announced in Ireland. Spikes of adrenaline hit us, and while a certain amount of anxiety is normal, we need mental containment. Telling people to stay calm is not enough, and more specific support is needed than that.

Individuals respond differently to global events. Stigmatisation, attacks and xenophobia arise. But dedication, empathy and support also surface.

As more cases are confirmed positive, we see a variety of reactions. Some people turn to humour, cracking jokes or posting images, others stockpile items such as food, toilet paper, hand sanitisers and anti-bacterial soap. Two women in Sydney, Australia, have been charged for their involvement in a fight in a supermarket over toilet rolls.


Some companies cash in and raise their prices. Others adopt a blasé approach like some young club-goers recently communicating a "it'll be grand" attitude and that life goes on, as reported in a recent Irish Times article by Jade Wilson. Perhaps this portrays the invincibility of many of our young population.


Gossip and rumours have also flourished, spreading false information and scaremongering. Some people obsess about it which can result in mental saturation and overload. This can effect daily functioning and sleep. Anxiety levels begin to rise with the uncertainty of it all.

People with mental health issues are also a vulnerable group we must not overlook. Individuals with OCD, general anxiety disorder, health anxiety and paranoia may experience exacerbation of symptomatology. Psychiatrists, psychologists and other professionals can provide accurate information and guidelines to them, and be the voice of reason.

For many others it is not only the fear of contracting the virus and its impact on health, but the fallout on their business and economic situation. Thankfully, for the majority of people they try to help and support. They show empathy and care about the vulnerable. They stick with the facts.

So what can be done to alleviate the emotional impact?

1) It needs to be a collective and community response, as well as a Governmental one. Coronavirus is a stark reminder that we are not individuals. We depend on each other and are interconnected.

2) Be constructive. According to WHO director general Tedrol Adhanom Ghebreyesus,"it is easy to blame, it's easy to politicise, it's harder to tackle a problem together and find solutions together". What can you do in your family and community to help? Schools, churches, organisations can all play an important role.

3) Engage in healthy distractions such as reading a light hearted book or watching a funny movie, going for a walk in the fresh air or learning a new language or skill.

4) Obtain your information from reliable sources. Get the facts and stick with the facts. We need to watch our language to avoid dramatics and hysteria.

5) Rather than saturating yourself in updates excessively, ringfence media exposure to certain times in the day. Pre-social media days, most people listened to the morning or evening news, and that was it.

6) Be aware of what is anxiety and what is reality in your thoughts and conversations.

7) Follow guidelines. Use prescribed handwashing methods, avoid touching your face, sneeze into elbow, cough into tissues then dispose of them. Forget politeness, and avoid hugging and shaking hands. We can develop our own national greeting that involves no touching – a nod will suffice. Stay at home and call your GP and do not attend if you have flu/respiratory symptoms. Please come forward.

8) Be sensible and minimise exposure to large groups. Engage in self-care routines and healthy habits. Get fresh air, adequate rest and take care of your immune system. If you are in a vulnerable group, take medical advice and seek support.

9) Prepare. Rather than it being a shock, if you need to self-isolate make some preparations just in case. Who could deliver food or supplies? What work arrangements could you make? How could you keep yourself occupied and have a routine? Think about how you would maintain contact by using Skype, calls, texts etc. Hospitals, nursing homes and other organisations could arrange for substitutions for a lack of visitors.

10) We need to be mindful of how we talk in front of children and the vulnerable. We can be positive role models in the way we refer to Covid-19, process information and practice good standards of hygiene.

11) Try to put it into perspective. According to the WHO, while seasonal flu can't be stopped, countries still have a chance to limit new cases of Covid-19. China has brought down the number of new cases by taking measures.

12) Empathy and support is needed for those infected, and for those who are working at the frontlines. Health professionals need stress management training to mitigate the fallout. They also need supplies, adequate breaks and societal support. Hats off to them.

13) American neuropsychologist Dr Antonio Puente has stated that we need to be concerned, not panicked, and, if you do get it to remember there are excellent medical professionals who will take care of you.

14) Accept that you can do your bit – and that's it. Try to stay in the now rather than catastrophise.

15) Be assertive about standards of hygiene in your home and other places. Walk out of public places if these are not adhered to.

16) Environments with large groups can take precautions where feasible such as online lectures, schooling and study from home, employee support, self-employed support and essential medical treatments only. Businesses and restaurants can implement more home delivery and collection services. Churches could have a capacity cap for attendance to ensure safe distancing, and Mass can be televised. Technology such as Skype and video calls can be fully utilised instead of face-to-face contacts.

Our leaders need to globally come together on this. Mass gatherings pose a threat, and need to be cancelled. Safe distance strategies for public places could be provided.

A task force has to involve a multidisciplinary cross-section of society, not just medics. Voluntary groups could be drafted in or set up as back-up. Preventative rather than reactionary measures have to be implemented.

We need more directives as opposed to guidelines.

Online/phone counselling services would provide emotional support. A more stringent and uniformed approach is the way forward. Rather than some environments posting large posters, holding briefings and monitoring the use of hand sanitisers at their entrances, this should be implemented across the board. Bans and restrictions are inevitable so why wait? Clamp down on sharks exploiting the situation with massive price increases. Public perception of actions being taken quells anxiety.

To curb panic, people need to feel a sense of control.

Common sense does not prevail as people have different levels of it.