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Coronavirus Disease 2019

The Psychological Impact of COVID-19

Key points we are missing as a society.

The pandemic of COVID-19 has simultaneously induced an epidemic of anxiety. In response, there have been a spate of articles encouraging people to engage in self-care. Most of these articles acknowledge our state of collective anxiety and suggest “quick tips” like “eat nutritious foods, try yoga, meditate, count your blessings,” and other guidance of this kind.

As a psychologist, I’m concerned that we’re missing the bigger picture of how traumatic recent events are for many people across America, including the following:

1. Our future horizon feels changed.

Many Americans have suddenly been taken down to the “survival” level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Scores of Americans are getting laid off, small businesses are hanging on by a thread, and those who work in the gig economy are severely impacted by the discontinuation of their services. People across the span of wealth are suddenly feeling financially insecure. Financial insecurity should theoretically be linked to the level of one’s wealth, yet it isn’t as simple as this. To the degree that people are stretched so thin that they don’t have savings or a buffer to pay their mortgage, they can be severely stressed by a change in their job status.

2. Our essential priorities are in flux, or maybe in direct conflict.

The unwritten rules[1] that we live by have suddenly changed. What are the unwritten rules? They are generally invisible to us—until they change. Two unwritten rules are “You earn your keep” and “You protect those you love.” These unwritten rules are directly at odds for many people across America right now. Take the example of a dual wage-earning couple—perhaps one has been suddenly laid off and the other is a healthcare professional whose work is deemed “essential.” Due to the layoff, they need the income of the healthcare worker, but there is an invisible catch-22. For that health care worker to earn income, he or she must go into their work environment without being furnished with adequate personal safety equipment (i.e. a shortage of N95 masks). So, working may put loved ones at home in danger of becoming ill. Even though we are told that children are not a “high risk” group, the desire to protect our children from any risk is a primal drive. People across America are facing these kinds of catch-22 situations, torn between two highly stressful outcomes.

3. Doing nothing is harder for many of us than doing something really hard.

There are plenty of examples in history to show us that nations of people can rise to the challenge of doing something hard. Yet, being asked to do nothing (but shelter in place) is quite a different thing. Many people will struggle with a loss of identity. The concept of “who I am” is formed in a network of interdependent roles and relationships. This is true across every culture and time. Losing all of this so suddenly will produce helpless rage for many of those impacted after the initial shock wears off. Unless we are aware of this, and addressing it in a strategic way, this may lead to tragic outcomes to self and others. Specifically, if a potentially extended period of social distancing results in loss of a productive role in society and extended isolation, we can predict escalation of the very two risk factors that Joiner’s Interpersonal Model of suicide risk tell us we should be concerned about: thwarted belongingness and feelings of burdensomeness.

4. Operating in defense mode may lead to second-order effects that we would be wise to anticipate.

Hoarding limited supplies is not a sustainable model for an economy. It creates a cycle of fear and anticipatory deprivation. Likewise, people pulling out of investing in the economy are seeking safety but are in fact creating the very conditions for economic collapse. Our way of life is based on trust and connection; these invisible threads that bind us also create the foundation for a strong economy.

Though it is challenging to be analytical about the stress in our lives during a time of peak anxiety and sweeping change, sustaining our way of life requires exactly this. We need to move our thoughts from the fight-or-flight system into the highest plane of who we are. We need to consider our deeper values, and how we can make hard decisions right now to prevent social and economic collapse.

We need to be intentional and relentlessly creative in:

  1. Continually connecting with each other using all modes available to us now,
  2. Finding ways to be productive again in new roles that tap existing strengths, and
  3. Doing business that will hold our economy stable through this crisis.

[1] With gratitude to Mike Humphrey for sharing the concept of “unwritten rules we live by.”


Psychological Science Agenda | June 2009

The Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of Suicidal Behavior: Current Empirical Status

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