Pandemics spread both psychologically and physiologically. When our survival is threatened, both our psychology and our relationship with our environment can be seriously affected.
The anxiety you felt at the beginning of the pandemic could turn into fear as the intensity increases. If you have developed a phobia of the disease, you may become obsessive about preventing it, which paradoxically can lead to you being less protected. When your awareness and sense of security is damaged, it becomes difficult to judge your behavior in a rational way. For example, panic buying can be a sign that you have difficulty determining what you actually need, and are stocking up more than necessary. You become less able to accurately assess physical sensations, your health and how to protect yourself. As a result, you might start taking extreme actions. All this leads to another, different pandemic: a psychological one. When you see other people acting in a similar way, and allow your behaviour to be dictated by fear, you pass on the same message to the people around you. This leads to certain common patterns of emotion and behavior.
Since everyone is feeling the same thing, it is easier to observe the changes in each other. The danger created by the pandemic and the measures we need to take to protect ourselves are all around us. The pandemic is constantly on our minds. The psychological effect is easily visible in our obsessive focus on certain behaviors and frequent expression of the emotions it creates. This leads us to try to control our feelings; the most common methods include denying our fear or even actively trying to forget it.
Using masks and disinfectants has become a normal part of life. Going to work, meeting people and maybe even traveling don’t seem like such huge risks anymore. Taking ordinary measures and returning to our routine can significantly reduce our fears. As people become less afraid, there is a risk that they will stop taking the necessary protective measures. Meanwhile, the number of cases increases every day. This second wave, which is never far away, leads people to panic yet again. So we find ourselves back at the beginning of the emotional cycle that we thought we had completed…
Just like anxiety and fear, denial and risky behaviour are also contagious, as is rejecting or refusing to comply with the rules needed to fight the pandemic. People are affected by their environment and, in turn, they affect their own environment. Our environment serves as a signal to follow similar patterns of behavior.
Common behavior patterns can make it difficult to identify and filter our own feelings and thoughts. When we feel insecure, we tend to adopt the same behaviours as others. It becomes almost impossible to behave differently. The more common our behaviors are, the easier it becomes to deal with our anxiety. This is one of the main factors of contagious behaviour: doing the same thing as other people creates a sense of security, whether we are engaging in protective or risky behavior.
This mass behaviour, which can be helpful in spreading protective actions, is influenced by many things, not just health and medical systems. The atmosphere to which we are exposed, our interactions with the environment, and the way the health risk is handled play a crucial role in our social reaction.
It can be hard to reach rational decisions when you are exposed to misinformation and face increased doubt and uncertainty. We have been exposed to these for a long time, throughout the pandemic. This can lead to significant changes in our psychology. We may find it difficult to assess the efficacy of the measures we take, and of our ability to cope. Individual or social factors can leave us feeling weak in the face of the pandemic, and vulnerable to the disease. And as this process goes on and on, we are more likely to engage in denial, stop believing that preventative measures actually work, long to return to past comfortable days, feel trapped and angry, and engage in risky behavior. Refusing to follow the rules is just as contagious as needing to follow them.
We find it easier to protect ourselves when we feel like we are in a safe environment, both emotionally and physically. When we feel insecure, we feel more vulnerable and our anxiety levels rise, or we can even be driven to despair. Especially when the process goes on longer than we expected, our reaction to the pandemic can change drastically over time.
Our perception of hygiene changes when our health is at stake. For example, we perceive ourselves or the objects we come into contact with as dirtier. Even a simple table or chair can become terrifying. There is an evolutionary reason for this increase in disgust, as it is a primary instinct that protects us from poisoning and harm.
Nevertheless, there is much to gain from this difficult process. At the end of all this chaos, we will be much more united as humanity, and we will seek psychological solutions to our problems. We are learning to be aware when we get lost in conspiracy theories, and that we should look for rational answers to our questions. It is possible to sift through the information pollution, to remain realistic and to make decisions that are as little affected by panic as possible. This difficult process can teach us a lot about our psychology. This ongoing and collective problem takes us down socio-psychological paths that allow us to observe our personal reactions, and may even help us to get to know ourselves better.
In addition to protecting yourself and your loved ones, you may also wish to better understand your emotional experiences. Some of us may find it easier to explore our feelings than others. Any attempts are very valuable. Every step we take towards a more positive position is a part of spiritual healing. This state of healing and protection also helps protect our physical health. Therefore, while it isn’t always easy, taking care of and using our inner resources will protect us from the destructive effects of the chaotic period we are going through.
In moments when we feel very anxious and afraid, we can try to return to our most basic resources. Sometimes setting a simple goal will help lower your expectations. For example, just remembering to breathe, motivating ourselves to go for a walk, or taking a break from our plans are all things we can try at different times. Remember that, like everything else, this too shall pass. Enjoy the order and transformation of nature, and realise that every day opens news doors. We will come out of the pandemic with a whole host of emotions, and we can adapt to many situations during the process. We can try to keep our joy alive by remembering what is good for us, by allowing ourselves to experience them, and by remembering that, despite everything, we have the power to heal ourselves.
Translated by: Ebru Peközer
The Pandemic, Panic and Beyond: The Psychology of Pandemics. Associate Professor. Fatih Artvinli – Faculty of Medicine Basic Medical Sciences Department of Medical History and Ethics, Acıbadem University
Pfefferbaum, B., & North, C. S. (2020). Mental health and the Covid-19 pandemic. New England Journal of Medicine.
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