The psychology of the pandemic: How COVID could change how we think

More than two years since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, such a tiny virus has irreversibly changed the world in so many ways.

Month upon month of physical and social isolation, threat of disease and death, heightened work and childcare responsibilities and more raised stress levels to unprecedented heights and increased incidents of depression, anxiety, addiction and other mental disorders. Few could have predicted the widespread psychological response to the ongoing pandemic – but some did.

As it turns out, human behavior is relatively predictable when it comes to major public health events. In the cases of global pandemics like the 1889 Russian flu and the 1918 Spanish flu as well as in smaller disease outbreaks like SARS and Ebola, the human response has been much the same: a rise in xenophobia, racism, conspiracy theories, panic buying and profiteering as well as a worsening of emotional disorders.

People have reacted this way to almost every threat to public health over the past few centuries. So is there a way for COVID to change how people think for the better?

Understanding the psychological response to COVID

A new disease is always a scary prospect. Even in the 21st century, with our outstanding modern medicine, an unfamiliar virus is likely to generate a fear response from large numbers of people – and fear is a powerful and chaotic feeling.

The brain and body undergo physical changes when experiencing fear; the body redirects blood flow to prepare for fight or flight, and the brain shuts down systems associated with reasoning and judgment to preserve energy for quick decision making.

The fear response does not abate quickly, and a pandemic that drags on can cause a large portion of the population to experience fear for a prolonged amount of time. Chronic feelings of fear can have devastating effects on an individual’s mental health, such as disassociation, anxiety, mood swings and helplessness.

Fearful people are more vulnerable to misinformation and rumors, which they might be more likely to act on due to their heightened emotional state.

There are plenty of examples of irrational and desperate behavior during the COVID pandemic. Drinking bleach and brushing teeth with horse dewormer, stockpiling dry goods like toilet paper, scrubbing groceries before they enter the home and other activities do nothing to keep people safe and can even be harmful to the individuals taking these actions. Yet, they tend to provide comfort by giving individuals a sense of control over their circumstances.

How government response matters

Governments have an important role in reducing loss of life during a new disease outbreak, but they should also feel responsible for limiting the psychological distress of their populations.

During the COVID pandemic but also during other historical waves of disease, governments issued increasingly dire warnings about the dangers of the disease – aiming to convince doubters of the seriousness of the pandemic and unintentionally worsening the panic and anxiety of much of the population who is already afraid of the disease.

Further, mandatory restrictions about physical distancing run counter to human nature, as people require social interaction for mental and physical health. A population’s willingness to adhere to rules about physical distancing will always deteriorate over time, so governments need strategies besides harsh restrictions to keep people safe.

Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus of what the proper government response should be. Those fascinated by the psychological response to COVID who are interested in researching and developing best practices to guide governments, business leaders and others through the next health crisis might consider pursuing advanced degrees in psychology, beginning with an online master’s in psychology.

Moving forward from the COVID pandemic

By no means is the COVID pandemic completely behind us. In fact, a handful of cities are reinstituting mask mandates as a new variant surges and infection rates increase once again. Still, few people expect to return to the uncertainty, chaos and fear of the early months of 2020, and many hope to see a decline in the xenophobia, racism, conspiracy theories, panic buying and profiteering that have increased over the past two years.

Yet, as the pandemic approaches its end, people should pay attention to one psychological benefit of disease outbreaks: altruism. With the spread of a new disease, people tend to become more interested in preserving others’ wellbeing, sometimes at the expense of their own.

People bring food and supplies to the sick and needy; people support the most important workers in our economy; and people open up about personal struggles with the home of building a stronger community. If we can maintain one psychological change from the COVID pandemic, hopefully it will be a rise in altruism.

Photo by Nick Fewings