The coronavirus pandemic has generated fear, confusion and a sense of powerlessness among millions of people, but it doesn’t have to create loneliness too, psychologists said.
Despite pervasive calls for “social distancing” in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus, people can stay in touch with each other by phone, email, social media or videochat so that they draw from each other’s experience and don’t feel so isolated amid frightening circumstances, experts said.
They urged people to limit their exposure to media coverage of the issue, to stick with outlets they trust and avoid the dangers of saturation, especially from outlets that take a sensational approach to the story.
Consider the source
“While there is a real benefit to the connectivity, we have to be careful about making sure we are getting information from credible people and credible sources,” said Steve Crimando, director of training in the Disaster and Terrorism Branch of the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services at the New Jersey Department of Human Services.
“In times of real stress and fear, that message is even more important because, from a standpoint of mental noise, it can be just overwhelming to people to hear so much information, and potentially contradictory information, that they actually don’t know up from down,” he said.
In the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11 and the anthrax letters in 2001, Crimando advised law enforcement, public health and other institutions on the behavioral consequences of those disasters. While such events often lead to neighbors helping each other cope, fear of being infected with the coronavirus is having the opposite effect: making people wary of getting too close to one another, he said.
“Now, it’s more like neighbor fears neighbor,” he said. “It greatly erodes community cohesion, and that’s the single greatest asset in a disaster.”
Staying in touch safely
But the universal availability of electronic communications means that people can keep in touch with each other without exposing themselves to the risk of infection.
“Probably for the first time in the history of major disease outbreaks, we have a way to state confidently that social distancing does not have to equate with social isolation. It’s something that we have going for us this time that wasn’t part of previous scenarios,” he said.
Still, social media can be a “two-edged sword” if it spreads misinformation at the same time as facilitating person-to-person contact, Crimando said.
Andrew Abeyta, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Camden, said the sudden national upheaval of familiar patterns of life has the potential to rob people of the things that give their lives meaning — like family, career, friends, goals and relationships.
If they are unable to socialize or suddenly lose their jobs because of a dramatic economic downturn, some people could also lose the sense of meaning and structure that those things provide, he said. And if people become unmoored, they could embrace other structures like conspiracy theories or political extremism.
“There’s a strong desire for people to want to right the ship, to want to grab control back,” he said. “Embracing these ideologies are just symptoms of trying to manage.” He said a member of his church recently told the congregation that he was hoarding ammunition to be prepared for some unspecified threat.
Like Crimando, Abeyta stressed the need for connection in the current crisis, and said it can coexist with social distancing, given the proliferation of electronic communication devices.
“We need contact with our friends and family to maintain psychological health, and I hope that’s not getting lost in the desire to quarantine,” he said. “We need to prioritize ways of connecting with others in a way that doesn’t lead to a further spread of the virus.”
The American Psychological Association issued a checklist of ways that people can manage their anxiety and maintain a positive outlook. It urged people to keep things in perspective by recognizing that most people who contract COVID-19 will only experience mild symptoms, making sure they get the facts from reputable media and official sources and staying connected even while practicing social distancing.
And those who are fearful, isolated or claustrophobic from days of self-quarantine could also try a simpler solution: going for a hike with their friends.
Elliott Ruga, policy and communications director at the nonprofit Highlands Coalition in Boonton, said the group is considering organizing such events if they can be done while preventing the spread of disease.
“Social distancing doesn’t mean that we have to retreat within our shells,” he said. “We just have to follow protocols that we don’t infect each other. We would follow whatever the health best-practice is so people would not be putting themselves at risk.”
Ruga, one of only two people working in his office on Monday, said he had failed to find toilet paper, paper towels or disinfectant in his local Walmart over the weekend, and has accepted that he won’t be eating in restaurants any time soon.
But he denied he was afraid or disoriented in the current crisis, and noted that he avoids misinformation such as a report that the coronavirus could be neutralized by gargling with a 10% bleach solution.
“What I need to know is what I need to know,” he said. “Everything else distorts, and causes panic and makes people more anxious.”