Coronavirus anxiety is a normal response to an unprecedented situation

The big-picture version of ourselves has to make a radical move from me to we

Italian police carry out checks after further restrictions amid the coronavirus emergency lockdown in Rome on Thursday. Photograph: Ettore Ferrari/EPA

Italian police carry out checks after further restrictions amid the coronavirus emergency lockdown in Rome on Thursday. Photograph: Ettore Ferrari/EPA

 

There is no vaccine, none of us is immune, there is no silver bullet. What is, however, at our disposal to help minimise the potentially fatal impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, is our behaviour; what we do, what we say and what we consume. Our behaviour can save lives.

We are facing into a future that will see unprecedented measures enacted across the globe and the island of Ireland in an attempt to contain the spread of Covid-19, to limit the number of related deaths and apportion finite resources.

Faced with the prospect of prolonged social isolation, many of us are afraid of what being alone might be like and what we might have to face

People are understandably anxious – we are concerned about our health, the health of people we love and the welfare of vulnerable family members. Anxiety is a completely normal human response to an abnormal situation. The ongoing and unpredictable spread of the potentially fatal coronavirus is as abnormal as it can get.

Many of us feel rattled, scared and frightened right now. The pandemic of Covid-19 gets to the heart of three of our fundamental human existential fears: losing control, social isolation and death.

When societies are struck by a crisis like the coronavirus, by a natural disaster or by a terrorist attack, the illusion of control is ripped away from us. We are revealed as the vulnerable, fragile and interdependent creatures we really are.

Faced with the prospect of prolonged social isolation, many of us are afraid of what being alone might be like and what we might have to face. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote the French philosopher Pascal in the 1600s.

We are also forced to consider our own mortality. What will care be like as our health services come under mounting pressure? We are shaken by the big questions we normally only get a glimpse of – did my life matter, will I be remembered, could I have lived and loved more fulsomely?

Coronavirus unleashes fundamental human fears that at other times we adaptively protect ourselves from with the illusion of control, the illusion of permanence and the comfort of social connection.

This is an emergency situation that has demanded an emergency response. However, human beings cannot stay in emergency high-alert response mode indefinitely. Research demonstrates that prolonged periods in such states of heightened psychological hyper-arousal and high alert are detrimental to human well-being.

Our front-line healthcare staff are particularly at risk from the well-documented adverse effects of prolonged exposure to psychological hyper-arousal. We need to act swiftly in this regard and prioritise, plan and budget for how to take care of the psychological and emotional health of front-line healthcare staff as part of coronavirus national emergency planning.

We find ourselves in unprecedented territory. This is a territory that calls on the most grown-up, adult, civic-minded and responsible version of ourselves. These times of crisis and national emergency call on this big-picture version of ourselves to make a radical move from me to we.

What is not unprecedented however is the human capacity to be brave, to care deeply and to do the right thing. The crisis we are in calls upon us to radically extend our frame of reference from the individual to the collective. As we move into the next few months and face a whole raft of lifestyle restrictions and hardships, it is this sense of the collective, the focus on we as opposed to the me, that will sustain us.

This unfamiliar territory we find ourselves in demands significant collective changes in how we behave. We express our care, kindness, solidarity and civic mindedness by changing our behaviour. It’s that simple – changing our behaviour today out of solidarity with each other will save lives.

The non-stop coronavirus media cycle is unhelpful at the very least, if not irresponsible on the part of broadcasters

There’s nothing lofty about this commitment to humanity. It begins with steadfast adherence to hand hygiene, coughing and sneezing etiquette and following the advice issued by the HSE.

There are two other behaviours that require change: the types of conversations we are having and how we are consuming the non-stop coronavirus media cycle and social media frenzy.

There is an emotional contagion in the conversations we are having, the content and tone have impact. We have a civic, grown-up adult responsibility not to engage in speculation, rumour and scaremongering concerning Covid-19. Our words shape this world. Our words, our conversations, can fuel anxiety, discord and panic and can also have the opposite effect of calming, unifying and inspiring responsible behaviour.

The non-stop coronavirus media cycle is unhelpful at the very least, if not irresponsible on the part of broadcasters. Part of our grown-up individual civic responsibility is to regulate how much of this we are consuming and more importantly to pause and consciously consider what we are passing on via social media.

Indiscriminately passing on posts about Covid-19 is wrong. By doing so we are fanning the fires of potential misinformation and collective hysteria. This is not to suggest we do not stay informed. Information is crucial, but we need to be self-disciplined and discerning with our consumption.

Our behaviour can save lives. Changing our behaviour – what we do, what we say and what we consume – is how we express our citizenship. Changing our behaviour is how we actualise our solidarity, our love and care for those with whom we are fortunate enough to share this planet.

Dr Paul D’Alton is Associate Professor of Psychology at UCD and Principal Clinical Psychologist at St Vincent’s University Hospital

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