COVID-19 Impact on Mental Health: Prolonged negative emotions may cause health hazards

Individuals who are mentally unstable or have undiagnosed disorder and individual with substance addiction (who may be facing withdrawal symptoms) tend to face higher risk of developing a more severe mental disorder, which may even lead to suicide.

Today, we are highly aware of the physical impact of the coronavirus on our health but the impact on our mental health and its consequences are yet to be fully evaluated. Our government has set up several laws and policies to deal with the impact of the pandemic. Nevertheless, we are facing mental and emotional turmoil due to new environmental situations which can be potentially damaging. Mental distress is equally as contagious and dangerous as the physical symptoms because even isolation and quarantine does not stop it from spreading. The nature of COVID-19 is uncertain and unpredictable which may have an effect on people’s mental health, especially in terms of emotions and cognition. This will certainly take a toll on everyone’s mental health.

Every day there has been an increasing report of positive and suspected cases in our country. The communicable nature of the diseases has elicited the feeling of worry among us about being infected in this outbreak which has heightened our indignation. The outbreak has led to anxiety and fear due to significant shortage of masks, disinfectants and other necessary supplies, the overwhelming and sensational news headlines, and misleading news reports (Ayittey et al.,2020).

One can also see the rise in suicide rate within our country (Livemint, 2020), the counselling and psychology clinic and services have reported an increase in their client rate (Indian express, 2020).  There are various stressors identified related to COVID–19 which were found positively associated with anxiety symptoms viz: economic stressors on individuals as well as on the country, its impact on our daily life, on students regarding academic delays and on the national health situation during the epidemic. In this current global situation, acknowledging, recognizing and acting on mental distress in these uncertain times is key to lessening the impact.

Uncertainty about the etiology of the situation we are facing today, causes cognitive dissonance (self-contradictory attitudes) and insecurity, producing a feeling of mental discomfort, leading people to engage in activities which reduce the dissonance by preserving health and family relationships. The theory of BIS (Behavioral Immune system) states that people develop avoidant behaviours (e.g., avoid contact with people who have pneumonia-like symptoms or distancing self from others who recently came in the state), negative emotions (e.g., aversion, anxiety, etc.), and obey social norms strictly (e.g., conformity) in times of group threats (e.g., natural disasters and epidemic diseases). Hence people prefer to stay at home with family, and reducing group or social activities seems to be a safer way to prevent the illness.

People’s interest and attention have shifted towards caring more about their health and are more likely to seek social support from their families rather than getting together with friends. When social uncertainty increases, such as unknown etiology and vague course of transmission, people develop a negative cognitive bias (e.g., the higher sensitivity of risk judgment or risk perception), which helps to keep themselves away from risking their lives.

However, the long-term negative emotions may reduce the immune function of people and destroy the balance of their normal physiological mechanisms, making individuals more vulnerable to various illnesses. This may also lead individuals to overreact- resulting in excessively avoidant behaviour and conformation with the norms blindly. It has already increased acts of discrimination, racism, media threats and physical threats among people. Furthermore, the restricted travel policy and self-isolation regulations from the health authorities may have decreased overall life satisfaction.

People who are distant from family or other important group members may experience loneliness, increasing the risk of individuals to be depressed adding to the anxiety and fear of potential risk and lack of controllability caused by COVID-19. Moreover, it is not always pleasant for everyone to stay at home in isolation, since many may face negative home environments such as domestic abuse. A long and unpredictable lockdown may make students less active and lose touch with their academic activities, which might become a major problem in balancing their routine, while their parents may feel powerless leading to frustration, outbursts of anger and disagreements between family members adding to the psychological distress.

Meanwhile, patients of mental illness are also experiencing an increase in their symptoms. Individuals who are mentally unstable or have undiagnosed disorder and individual with substance addiction (who may be facing withdrawal symptoms) tend to face higher risk of developing a more severe mental disorder, which may even lead to suicide. 

Obsessive thoughts (i.e intrusive worry that one is dirty and in need of washing, cleaning/sterilizing),  or thoughts about limited resources available have made people hoard things may act as trigger to the predisposing factor- increasing the risk of obsessive-compulsive, paranoia and generalized anxiety disorder. People who have been quarantined or persons with confirmed cases of COVID-19 are experiencing traumatic stress resulting from the social comments and threats they face due to the stigma.

Such serious emotions of fear and anxiety caused by social stigma have led people to be terrified of quarantine and this has reduced seeking help even if they might have been exposed to an infected person.

The medical healthcare workers, caretaker of the ill person, and people experiencing bereavement are also exposed to trauma. Health workers and Police protecting us are also experiencing anxiety, panic and pressure from their family as they are also concerned regarding the risk they are taking.

The challenges and stress we are experiencing today could trigger common mental disorders, including anxiety and depressive disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder, which in turn could result in hazards that exceed the consequences of the 2019-nCoV epidemic itself. Therefore, it is essential to give attention and spread awareness about its impact on mental health.  

To reduce the risk of psychological discomfort we should follow a routine for everyday activities including recreational activities.

-Limiting watching or reading news about the illness to just 45 minutes to 1 hour per day will reduce the emotional stress response in us, thus reducing the anxiety.

-It is important to keep in mind that the sites from where the information is obtained should be authentic.

-Do not forward or upload videos and pictures in social media which are not trustable- this might cause more panic and anxiety.

-One of the core measures we all should take is eliminating the stigma associated with the epidemic-this will increase emotional and mental social support.

-Sharing positive video contents, messages, pictures and comments on the media will help in encouraging each other in such times– this will help in maintaining the group cohesiveness and also increase optimistic thoughts in us.

-We should keep in touch with friends and relatives via social media and other means- this will maintain a normal life under safe conditions.

-Using the psychosocial service system, particularly telephone-based and internet-based counseling for healthcare staff, patients, family members, and the public will be helpful in balancing the distress we are facing-these actions can improve the sense of stability and relieve anxiety and depression.

Some preventive measures we can take to be mentally healthy in such conditions are provided by the CDC (Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention) and WHO (World Health Organizations) too.

To beat this global pandemic we are facing today, we have to be aware of the challenge and concerns brought by 2019-nCoV to our community. Instead of panic buying or forwarding misleading and unreliable video content, maintaining calm environment and virtually connecting with society will equip us with better tools to overcome any challenges- be it lockdown or the virus.

As per our country’s populations we seem to be in a much better place today.  Let’s give every effort to fight together with the warriors who are fighting today, encourage them and support each other to the very best that we can. The time is to act now!  Take care of both mental and physical health and stay safe.

(The views expressed are the writer's own)

First Published:Oct. 9, 2020, 1:33 p.m.

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