People stocking up on food, medication and household supplies has been ongoing in the Lower Mainland for more than two weeks.
Undoubtedly, the stores’ shelves started emptying as a result of Canada’s Health Minister advice to get prepared for a potential COVID-19 crisis, which might require self-isolation in cases of illness, despite the announced “relatively low risk of contracting the disease in Canada”. Nevertheless, it appears that the initial frantic buying is maintained (and possibly fueled) by a psychological phenomenon called informational social influence; namely, other people’s behavior leads us to conform because we see them as a source of information to guide our behavior.
We conform the most when situations are ambiguous (ex. Experts cannot predict to what extent and where the coronavirus would spread) and when we find ourselves in a crisis – getting panicky prevents us from thinking rationally, while we naturally look at how others are responding (ex. If everyone is filling their carts with toilet paper that would last them for a year we should do the same).
In a time of globalization when people can reach the other end of the world within a day, mass media is even faster and more accessible than ever. So even if you missed the Health Minister’s advice to stock up on supplies, it is very likely that within minutes someone that you follow on social media posted about it and thus informed you about the danger of the coronavirus. Being exposed to similar news feeds by different (not necessarily objective) sources over a continuous period of time contributes to our perceived inability to cope with our negative feelings and beliefs – in other words stress.
The body’s immediate response to stress is to secrete epinephrine and norepinephrine along with activating the so called HPA axis, which eventually leads to an elevated cortisol (i.e. stress hormone) in the bloodstream. On a physical level the experience of stress might include increased heartbeat, headaches and migraines, nausea, muscle pain, indigestion, and weakened immune system – the irony then being that the more we stress about the outbreak, the more susceptible our bodies become to the coronavirus (or any other virus for that matter). In addition, the physical symptoms of stress tend to be accompanied by behavioral symptoms such as unhealthy eating and/or substance use, changes in the sleeping patterns and social withdrawal to mention a few; and by emotional symptoms that range from inability to focus and increased irritability, to mood instability and anxiety.
I originally wrote this article on March 11th – the day when the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19 is now officially a global pandemic. As I am editing on March 17th, BC declared public health emergency in view of the 83 new COVID-19 cases (out of 186 total) in the province, while BC Education Minister announced that K-12 classes have been postponed indefinitely. Given the exponential spread of the novel coronavirus many worry that the tragedy currently experienced by thousands of Italian families could come our way, while others start expressing concerns about having to care for their children and pay bills in a climate of job insecurity, or about a potential economic crisis.
I get it – it’s scary! And just like all the frantic shoppers, parents, people with elderly relatives, owners of closed down businesses, laid off employees and of course like all humans out there I worry too. First of all, let me remind you that fear is one of the six universal emotions, and is normal to experience it in a situation of emergency; in fact, the role of fear is to prompt our fight or flight response in order to help us survive. Since fleeing is definitely not an option, I’d like to share with you some strategies that might help you fight for your wellbeing – in other words cope with the spread of the novel coronavirus and its consequences on your lives.
When we feel distressed because what’s happening is out of our control, radical acceptance might be a healthier path to take in order to experience less fear, anxiety, sadness or anger.
One useful therapeutic tool to keep in mind is the acronym A.C.C.E.P.T.S.
A stands for activities that we could engage in to keep our focus on what we enjoy (ex. hobbies, postponed projects, working out at home).
Contributing to someone or something other than ourselves could be beneficial in that it gives us a sense of purpose when all seems uncertain. I find it inspiring to see people unifying as a result of this pandemic, and I’ve recently witnessed some great contributing examples like someone getting the groceries for an elderly neighbor.
The second C stands for comparisons; although it might seem counter-intuitive we could compare our circumstances to those that are worse (ex. there are 31 506 confirmed cases in Italy, which has a territory twice smaller than that of BC).
E is for emotions – simply put, do something that would elicit the opposite emotion of what you’re feeling.
Pushing away our concerns and negative beliefs can be therapeutic when we get them out of our minds – like writing them down on a piece of paper and then throwing it away (as a symbolic freeing of our burden).
On the other hand, when our emotions take over, we can try to focus on our Thoughts. If you notice that you become anxious when reading social media posts related to COVID-19, you could instead identify a trusted source like BC Centre for Disease Control, where you can get answers to some of your questions (ex. “How can I protect myself and my family”). Finally, engaging each of our Senses could help us distract ourselves from negative thoughts and emotions.
Think of this as a great excuse to enjoy a scenic view (i.e. vision), listen to music that you like (i.e. hearing), get a massage (i.e. touch), treat yourself something you’ve been craving for (i.e. taste), and smell the blooming magnolia flowers or diffuse your favorite essential oils, which might have anti-viral and relaxing properties to contribute further to your wellbeing. Last but not least, I encourage you to engage in deep breathing and I’d like to remind you that even if you can’t solve the pandemic you can talk about your concerns with your friends, family or therapist, so that you can calm your mind and lessen the power of fear.
Bobbie Miteva, MA, RTC
Aronson, E. et all (2007). Social Psychology. Toronto: Pearson (3rd ed.).
Carlson, N. et all (2005). Psychology: The Science of Behavior. Toronto: Pearson (2nd ed.).
Dozois, D. (2015). Abnormal Psychology Perspectives: DSM-5 Update. Toronto: Pearson (5th ed.).
Practitioners on this site are not Medical Doctors (MD), nor are any of the suggestions or recommendations made on this site meant to be a substitute for advice from your MD, or as a substitute for any prescriptions you may be taking. Any suggestions followed will be the responsibility of the individual, and are stated with the intention of interest and education. If you have a health issue, please see your primary care physician first and foremost.