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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

The novel coronavirus set in motion a global pandemic that the world is still attempting to understand, treat, and grapple with.

The virus is a novel member of the coronavirus family of viruses, long associated with the common cold, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). The virus is believed to have existed in animals before recently mutating and undergoing transmission to humans.

Because it’s a new virus, its behavior, its virulence, its means of spread, and other important features are only now under study. Infectious disease experts around the world are providing important information about the virus almost daily that can help curb its spread.

The virus leads to an illness called Coronavirus Disease 2019 or COVID-19. People with the disease typically have a fever, cough, trouble breathing, and exhaustion.

Most people who get the disease recover on their own with no lasting consequences, according to the World Health Organization. But up to 20 percent of cases may need urgent medical attention. Those most at risk include elderly adults and people with underlying health conditions.

Men appear to experience at least twice the risk of complications and death as women, and obesity as well as diabetes, heart disease, and immunologic conditions are reported risk factors for serious illness. Because the virus has a particular affinity for lung tissue, breathing can become compromised, and patients requiring hospital care often need the assistance of a mechanical ventilator, or respirator.

Simple actions like washing your hands, not touching your face, and staying home when sick can help keep everyone safe. Social distancing and avoiding large gatherings are also key to curbing transmission.

The novelty of the coronavirus threat, the uncertainty about its behavior, and the necessary adoption of restrictive measures to contain its spread, such as social isolation, have created unusual conditions giving rise to unprecedented levels of anxiety. Anxiety is an unpleasant sensation that normally serves as a stimulus to take appropriate action, but the very measures taken to curb the coronavirus require that people refrain from most forms of activity. As a result, the impact of anxiety is magnified and many people feel helpless.

Social isolation is a severe psychological and physiological stressor, and the stress of isolation is likely to hit hardest those people who, for one reason or another, are already devoting significant energy and resources to adapt to everyday life. These include, but are not limited to, the socially anxious, the unemployed, those with pre-existing mental health problems, those at risk for domestic violence and child abuse, elderly people coping with hearing or eyesight problems, and those experiencing cognitive decline.

Managing Anxiety and Fear

As governments, corporations, and individuals work to contain the spread of the virus, it’s natural to experience stress or fear related to your health, your family, your job, and the economy. Although no one knows exactly what the next weeks or months will hold, many strategies can successfully address the anxieties that emerge during this time. These include physical steps, such as prioritizing sleep and staying active, and emotional support such as challenging unhealthy thoughts and calling family and friends.

How can I manage my anxiety during the coronavirus outbreak?

As the pandemic continues to spread, anxiety does as well. Keeping calm is key to both mental health and immune function. Establishing a daily routine, checking the news during designated times, practicing meditation, and reaching out to loved ones are some of the tips that help keep anxiety in check.

What are effective strategies to cope with stress?

Recognize the symptoms of stress—such as difficulty concentrating, irritability or sadness, and sleep problems—to know when and how to respond. Control what you can, such as following federal guidelines, but then try to release the concerns that you cannot control. Additionally, limit news consumption and practice self-care.

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Parenting and Family Help

COVID-19 and the social distancing measures that followed have completely upended daily routines and family dynamics. Specific strategies can help you navigate the new normal, from soothing your children to keeping your pet safe.

How can I help my child process the pandemic?

Children may feel confused, angry, or restless during the outbreak. Here’s how to navigate their feelings and yours when everyone is under one roof: Validate difficult feelings, process emotions through play, and embrace structure and routine.

How do I homeschool my child?

One strategy is to lean on your community. Assemble a group of parents who can each contribute one remote lesson, such as an English class or cooking demonstration. In addition to keeping kids engaged and social, this joint effort affords off-duty parents time to work, run errands, and keep up with household responsibilities.

Staying Connected
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Humans are innately social, and it’s difficult to refrain from seeing family, friends, and the people we simply pass on the street every day. Many are calling for social distancing to be reframed as “physical distancing,” in order to emphasize the importance of staying connected during this time.

How can I feel less lonely while social distancing?

Video-chatting with friends and family is key, and aim to schedule regular calls rather than single calls. Shift activities like book clubs and happy hours online. Immerse yourself in a fictional world, as characters can serve as “social surrogates.” Acts of kindness toward others can also alleviate loneliness by instilling a sense of connection and purpose.

How do I maintain my relationships while self-quarantining?

Humans have a pervasive, evolutionary drive to be with other people—which can make social distancing incredibly difficult. Maintain your relationships by calling and video-chatting people you see regularly, and take advantage of the opportunity to deepen relationships with people who you aren’t as close with yet.

How a Crisis Can Create New Possibilities for Healing

Within any challenge, there are opportunities. There is no question the COVID-19 pandemic has generally raised anxiety levels the world over, but for substantial subsets of those with chronic mental health conditions, the coronavirus crisis has provided opportunities for a radical shift of mindset or perspective that has eased the burden of disorder or ameliorated it altogether.

For many, having to meet day-to-day survival demands of the epidemic—ensuring a healthy food supply, maintaining sanitary routines, staying up-to-date on health-related information—has relieved painful self-focus or provided distraction from insecurities and obsessive thoughts to give the mind a healing rest.

For nearly everyone, a world suddenly turned upside down forces the need for rapid problem-solving and the forging of new relationships, life patterns, and perspectives on ways of doing nearly everything.

How can I recognize the opportunities hidden in this crisis?

The disruption of the coronavirus crisis can serve as a stimulus for growth, summoning people to marshall personal resources that can work on their behalf long into the future. Responding to the crisis as a challenge to be mastered can lead to the enhancement of capabilities and confidence that psychologists observe as post-traumatic growth.

How can the social deprivation required to slow the epidemic help people emotionally? 

Widespread directives that people fight the epidemic by staying home have given many people, such as perfectionists, permission to reset expectations of themselves. Studies show that for others, the lack of many everyday distractions opens the door to learning how to tolerate negative emotions; such self-regulation is considered one of the most important life skills.

Remote Therapy: Moving to Phone and Video Sessions

Therapy sessions are typically conducted face to face, but the COVID-19 outbreak is pushing therapists and clients to adapt. To keep therapy going strong, many are turning to video-chat apps or phone calls. Even remote conversations can produce effective treatment, but if this is the first time planning an online session, there are some details worth considering.

How do I make the most of remote therapy?

There are steps you can take to prepare for your sessions. These include testing out the app or software you’ll be using, making sure you have enough privacy during your session, and limiting distractions by closing other apps or websites. You’ll want to know your therapist’s contact information and preferred means of payment, too.

My therapist won’t continue therapy remotely. What should I do?

Your therapist may refer you to someone who can provide therapy remotely for as long as is needed. If not, many other therapists offer remote sessions. If you don’t want to see a new therapist, you can ask your therapist about books, online resources, and activities that can help until your next session.

Remote Work

To maximize social distancing, more and more companies are asking employees to work from home. In many locations, it is now required by law that nonessential workers stay home, meaning that those who are able to work remotely must do so.

Even in the best of times, transitioning to working from home can be a major adjustment. In the midst of a pandemic, added anxiety and novel distractions—such as children attending school from home, too—have made the shift more challenging than ever. Adopting strategies to minimize distractions, as well as accepting that perfect productivity may be out of reach during this stressful time, can help individuals adapt to their new worklife.

How do I learn to work virtually?

Establish a clear structure to your workday and draw distinct boundaries between work and other areas of your life. This means setting up a dedicated workspace (if space allows), starting and stopping at set times, and “getting ready” each day—showering, getting dressed, and having breakfast—before starting work. 

How can I improve my productivity during this time?

Transitioning to remote work provides the opportunity to test out new workstyles and strategies. Experiment with different time management and collaboration strategies—such as planning out a weekly schedule or setting up a daily check-in with coworkers—to identify ways to become more productive. 

Cognitive Biases at Play During the Pandemic
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Extraordinary events can provoke some unusual or even baffling responses from human beings. In the wake of this outbreak, we’ve seen everything from frantic mass purchases of toilet paper and hand sanitizer to blatant flouting of public health warnings and rules about social gatherings. The biases and heuristics long studied by psychologists could help explain these phenomena.

How could biases be shaping our view of coronavirus?

The tendency to play down the risk of unusual events, or normalcy bias, may be responsible for continued social congregation in spite of expert advice. For some, however, catastrophic thinking could lead to going beyond recommended precautions or overreacting to signs of potential danger.

Why are people panic-buying toilet paper and other items?

The pandemic led to a scramble in some countries to stock up on toilet paper and other goods, apparently triggered by people’s reactions to other people’s behavior in an instance of the bandwagon effect. The urge to eliminate even small risks (such as running out of toilet paper) may have contributed, too.

Physical Health
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Following the guidelines put forth by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is critical so that everyone stays safe. From hand washing and social distancing to boosting the immune system, individuals can take plenty of concrete steps to maintain their health.

How do I break the habit of touching my face?

Identify when and why you unconsciously touch your face, such as during periods of boredom or stress. Address those triggers by keeping something in your hand to fidget with, such as a beaded bracelet, or by putting your hands between your legs to make touching your face more difficult.

How can I boost my immune system?

Keep your immune system strong by getting plenty of sleep, exercise, and eating nutrient-rich foods like leafy greens and fruit. Stress hormones can tax the immune system, so soothing your stress can help as well.

The Biology and Transmission of COVID-19

Viruses, including the coronavirus, are transmitted via coughing, sneezing, and exhaling, uncontrollable behaviors that increase transmission from person to person. People can contract the virus through droplets expelled into the air or by touching a surface with those droplets and then touching the eyes, nose, or mouth.

Research suggests that each person with the novel coronavirus spreads it to two to four new people. If left unabated, the number of cases then grows exponentially. This trend is exacerbated by the fact that many COVID-19 cases are mild, so individuals may not yet know they are infected.

The goal of quarantine, social distancing, and other restrictive measures is to slow the spread of the disease so that the number of cases does not overwhelm the health care system. This concept is known as flattening the curve. In practice, however, this process is messy and difficult. It’s challenging for individuals to grasp how the small actions they take may influence the overall progression of the pandemic.

How does a virus spread so rapidly?

Almost everyone with the virus passes it along to a few new people. If the number of infected individuals continues to double unconstrained, the prevalence of cases rises exponentially.

What's the difference between coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and COVID-19?

The term coronavirus means that the virus referenced is a member of the family Coronoviridae. The specific coronavirus with which we're currently struggling is named SARS-CoV-2. The disease the virus causes is called COVID-19. A pathologist answers 8 basic biology questions here.

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