How to keep from going corona crazy

The steady stream of bad coronavirus news is like the incessant drip-drip-drip of Chinese water torture.

On Monday, the lira hit an 18-month low of 6.6 to the dollar. On Tuesday, we learned that Turkey has the fastest rate of coronavirus infection in the world, an economics professor in the United States said at least 32 million people in Turkey will be infected - nearly half the population - and up to 600,000 will die, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued a Level 3 warning against travelling to Turkey.

“It’s all very surreal, it’s like living in a zombie movie,” Frank McAndrew, the Cornelia H. Dudley professor of psychology at Knox College, told Ahval in a podcast.

We remain stuck in our homes and able to do next to nothing to improve the situation, and McAndrew points out that one of the biggest difficulties of corona-related isolation is that we have lost our normal daily routine.

“Suddenly you’re not going to work anymore, you’re not seeing your same social circle, and you’re not doing anything,” he said. “This changes everything and it’s mentally exhausting.”

We have minimal understanding of the situation and hardly know what to do because our leaders send unclear messages about the severity of the threat or the appropriate course of action.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks about re-opening businesses and churches by April 12, which health experts say would likely lead to a major public health disaster. Similarly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tells people to stay in their homes and it will all be over in three weeks, while medical professionals expect the self-quarantining to last for several months.

The Turkish government said its coronavirus test was the world’s fastest and most accurate and Health Minister Fahrettin Koca repeatedly said it had been exported to several countries, including the United States - all of which was proven untrue by Turkish-American physician and University of Pittsburgh professor Ergun Kocyildirim in an article earlier this month for the National Interest.

Erdoğan tells Turkey “there is nothing which is exhausted or out of stock,” ignoring the fact that Turkey is very low on the two most crucial items in any coronavirus response kit; respirators and tests. Turkey has begun mass producing the former and importing the latter from China, starting with 300,000 rapid-result tests arriving this week.

Dana Rose Garfin, a behavioural psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of California-Irvine, said that this sort of waffling, confusion and obfuscation on the part of government officials tended to deepen citizens’ frustrations and anxiety.

“People like certainty, people like feeling in control, and these mixed messages we’ve been seeing from governments at all levels are very difficult for people because they don’t know what to do,” she said. “People like to take action that they think is effective ... so when they are in a place where they don’t even know what that is, that’s compounding their psychological distress.”

The reality is that coronavirus isolation could lead to serious health issues. Two University of Toronto professors studied people quarantined during the SARS outbreak and found that 31 percent, or nearly a third, had symptoms of depression, while 29 percent showed signs of post-traumatic stress, or PTSD.

“When you’re in the same place and nothing ever changes either socially or physically, you start to kind of withdraw from that and focus inward,” said McAndrew. “For a lot of people this takes a nasty turn: you start ruminating about your sorry state of existence and focusing on past things that you regret, and this can really feed the depression.”

A recent study in the medical journal, The Lancet, found that people in quarantine for 10 days or more showed significantly higher PTSD symptoms, which means that corona-driven isolation is going to get significantly more difficult in the days ahead for many people in Turkey and beyond.

That steady drip-drip of news is partially to blame. Garfin has studied the mental and emotional impact of major traumatic events, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, and co-authored a recent paper detailing how consistent news consumption during a shared trauma like this pandemic is likely to increase negative health effects.

“In the 13 years that I’ve been studying these issues, media exposure is one of the most robust predictors of psychological distress,” she said. “It is crucial to not be repeatedly exposed to the news over and over again.”

Garfin acknowledged a key difference between this pandemic and single-day events like 9/11 or a tsunami, which are essentially over in a flash. With coronavirus we need to stay updated on local measures and aware of the current safest course of action, so it’s important to pay some attention to the news.

“You do want to be informed,” she said, advising people to check the news twice and day and sign up for notifications from local government bodies. Garfin said the negative health effects “skyrocket” at higher levels of news consumption, and urged people not to watch three to four straight hours of news.

“It’s easier said than done,” said McAndrew. “People absolutely hate uncertainty, especially when it’s about something that has such big implications for them. Even if you know, ‘I’m not supposed to sit here and watch CNN all day long’, you can’t look away. You’re desperate for any scrap of information that’s going to help you figure this out or give you some sense of closure about when it’s going to be over.”

As of now we have little idea when the self-quarantining and the pandemic anxiety will be over, so McAndrew urged people to establish a new routine while in isolation, to “make this the new normal”.

One way to do this is to connect with other people online, using video chat rather than calling, texting or emailing because of its closer approximation of in-person interaction. Garfin urged people to take part in group video meetings, virtual happy hours or online fitness classes.

“This can create that, ‘Hey I go to 5:30 yoga every day, and I’m still going to go to 5:30 yoga every day’,” she said. “There are things that people can dig into even in these trying times that can provide a sense of community and a sense of comfort.”

For couples and family members that may be starting to get on each other’s nerves while in isolation together, McAndrew recommended developing separate routines and giving each other space, rather than spending much of the day in the same room. Already in Turkey, reports of domestic abuse have risen since corona-related self-quarantining began last week.

Garfin and her colleagues at UC-Irvine have just begun a study of psychological responses to the coronavirus pandemic among some 6,000 Americans, and will know a great deal more about its impact in a couple of months. For now, she hoped leaders in Turkey and around the world would communicate more clearly and seek to give people a shared sense of purpose.

“I like this analogy that we’re at war together, because people are willing and able to make sacrifices towards the common good or to defeat a quote-unquote enemy,” she said. “If this pandemic or this event is able to get people to reprioritise and find a little more meaning in their life, then ultimately that is of potential psychological benefit.”


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.