6 Ways to Promote Positive Coping During COVID-19

Using our influence to help others during COVID-19.

Posted Nov 16, 2020

Roman Kraft/Unsplash
Source: Roman Kraft/Unsplash

This guest post is by Dr. Geoffrey Sutton.

I got up early to attend the 7:40 a.m. funeral of my cousin who died from COVID-19 on April 9, 2020. Sara Trollope was a devoted nurse leader (matron) in a London hospital. A few weeks earlier, due to travel restrictions, I had canceled plans to visit my family and walk the familiar streets of London with her mother. With sadness, I watched the virtual service online as her mother and a limited group of subdued family members entered a small chapel, listened to favorite songs, and heard encouraging words from her pastor. By now, many families have shared this tragic experience—not only of unexpected loss, but also of being unable to sit next to their loved one at the end of life or offer in-person support to each other during memorial services.

As the fight against the spread of COVID-19 continues, we hear different perspectives on the rising numbers of infected people and why so many did not survive. Researchers Jay J. Van Bavel and his colleagues summarized research suggesting ways to cope with pandemic effects in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. In this post, I draw on this growing body of research to suggest ways we may use whatever degree of influence we have to help others survive.

We may not think of ourselves as leaders, but most of us can influence even a few people as friends, parents, small-group leaders, and work supervisors. At the very least, we may be able to influence our own behavior.

How Can We Promote Positive Coping?

1. Present negative news with messages of efficacy.

Fear can be a powerful motivator. We automatically cringe in response to loud gunshots and run from a menacing bear. Some of us respond to public health messages of self-protection like “wear a mask” more than others. Why is this? Some research suggests that we only respond adaptively to threats when there is a strong sense of efficacy—the belief that we can do something to overcome the challenge. When efficacy is low, fear leads to a defensive response. This is the science behind responsible reports of disasters that offer numbers to call and things to do—like my link to the public health messages in this paragraph.

2. Account for optimism bias.

Many of us have a natural tendency to believe we are less likely to experience a disaster than someone else. This optimism bias can lead some of us to avoid public health guidance. Our ongoing challenge is to avoid provoking excessive anxiety while sharing a realistic appraisal of the threat to our health, or even life itself. It can be tempting to over-emphasize a threat when optimists seem bent on minimizing risks, but unrealistic assessments won’t help those most in need of a balanced approach.

3. Expand group identity.

It is no secret that COVID-19, like other viruses, is spread by personal contact. If different subgroups in a community reject public health messages because they view them as coming from an opposition group, they are less likely to follow safety and health guidelines. Leaders who find ways to promote an expanded sense of group identity, as in, “We are all in this together,” will be more effective. Nations become more important than political parties. Faith identity becomes more important than related identities that divide us. The survival of older relatives becomes more important than individual liberties.

4. Identify credible sources.

Credible sources vary with a subgroup. Some people have confidence in political leaders, some trust physicians and scientists, and others have faith in the counsel of spiritual and religious leaders. Whatever our expertise, most of us seek advice from experts who know more than we do. A religious leader may not know how a treatment or vaccine works, but if they trust a medical expert, then the religious leader becomes a credible source influencing others to trust the advice of the same expert. 

Credibility comes from experience too. For example, Rev. Mark Palenske warned people to “take this medical threat more seriously.” According to NBC News, pastor Palenske’s wife required hospitalization for COVID-19. She was one of nearly three dozen church attendees infected. His words have the ring of authenticity: “Maybe you assumed that it couldn’t happen to you, just like I did…”

5. Maintain connections.

We should be mindful of the effects of isolation on loneliness. It can be helpful to clarify that isolation need not mean loneliness. We’ve heard the expression “lonely in a crowd,” which reflects the psychological sense of being disconnected from those around us regardless of the number of people present. And we know some people enjoy time alone and desire less social interaction than others. One social contact size doesn’t fit all. 

Fortunately, physical distancing does not imply social distancing. My wife and I belong to a small group at our church. We’ve been meeting online. Recently, the leaders organized a group visit to elderly members who haven’t been able to join our virtual meetings. Their masked smiles and ours provided evidence that safe gatherings, respecting recommended physical distancing, are worthwhile.

6. Promote safety by self-nudging.

Nudging does not seem to work to encourage rapid compliance with health and safety rules during a pandemic. But we do appear to respond to the behavioral choices of those we trust in our social network, especially when healthy behavior appears to be the norm. Samuli Reijula and Ralph Hertwig suggest ways we can embrace the ideas of government or medical experts by turning them into effective self-nudges. We can use safety reminders, affirm positive messages about extra time at home, place our messages where we will see them, and consider using the effective self-nudging strategies learned from others. Perhaps sharing our successful self-nudges may even help others develop their own plans for coping with the inconveniences associated with COVID-19 and similar disasters.

I have given up on seeing my family in the UK for 2020. Fortunately, we interact via social media with the hope of a face-to-face reunion in the near future and at least an elbow bump if not a hug.

Geoff Sutton, used with permission
Source: Geoff Sutton, used with permission

About the Author: Geoffrey W. Sutton Ph.D. is a psychologist, author, speaker, and emeritus professor of psychology at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri. His recent book, Living Well: 10 Big Ideas of Faith and a Meaningful Life, illustrates the science behind a meaningful life and time-honored virtues like courage, humility, and hope. Follow on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and his website, www.suttong.com.

References

Bavel, J.J.V., Baicker, K., Boggio, P.S. et al. (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature Human Behaviour 4, 460–471. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0884-z

REIJULA, S., & HERTWIG, R. (2020). Self-nudging and the citizen choice architect. Behavioural Public Policy, 1-31. doi:10.1017/bpp.2020.5