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Are we psychologically prepared for the coronavirus outbreak?

From travel restrictions to forced isolation, the new coronavirus brings psychological threats, too.

Don Arnold / Getty
  • The novel coronavirus has spread to all continents except Antarctica, and it's infected more than 90,000 people as of early March.
  • In China, mental health officials are trying to keep up with thousands of service requests from doctors and civilians facing fear, anxiety and exhaustion.
  • It's unclear how Americans will react if the outbreak intensifies.


Scientists have a decent understanding of how the novel coronavirus affects the body. But what's less clear is how the outbreak — its death toll, what governments do to control it, etc. — will affect peoples' psyche.

The situation in China provides clues: For weeks, millions of people across dozens of cities have been living under lockdown conditions, with many unable to travel, go out in public, or in some cases, leave their housing complex. Many have been isolated in mandatory quarantines. China's President Xi Jinping told citizens: "Staying indoors is your contribution to the Party and the Country."

But for people in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, these containment measures seem to be taking a psychological toll. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors have been responding to a "surge" of service requests from doctors and civilians in the city, most of whom are dealing with panic, fear of infection, or financial stress, according to the Wall Street Journal.

How will Amercians respond, psychologically, if the outbreak intensifies? It's a sobering question to consider, especially in light of estimates that 40 to 70 percent of the world's population might become infected. In other words, we might soon enter a scenario where most of us know someone who dies from coronavirus, as The New York Times reported last week.

So, when gauging how Americans will react psychologically, it's worth looking at how the Chinese are responding, and then factoring in cultural and political differences between Americans and the Chinese. For example: Americans might be more psychologically sensitive to the outbreak and its political ramifications, considering:

  • The Chinese are, presumably, more experienced with viral outbreaks; they suffered the brunt of the 2002 SARS epidemic.
  • The Chinese are also more accustomed to the government exercising top-down control; Americans would likely respond more disagreeably to being told they can't book a cross-country flight.
people walking in quarantine suits from Diamond Princess cruise shipDiamond Princess Cruise Ship Remains Quarantined As Coronavirus Cases Grow

Carl Court / Getty

However, it wouldn't be the first time the U.S. government compromised citizens' individual liberties to control the outbreak of a contagious disease. In response to the 1918 Spanish Flu, for example, officials in some U.S. states banned public gatherings, forcibly isolated and quarantined the ill, and closed public schools for weeks at a time. This was the last time the government exercised large-scale quarantine and isolation measures.

In recent weeks, Americans have undergone mandatory quarantine at the nation's borders, where the federal government's protective powers are most clearly defined. On March 3, more than 100 Americans who had been passengers aboard a Diamond Princess cruise ship were released after spending two weeks in quarantine. Americans who recently returned home from China have also had to undergo quarantine.

Although the federal government is within its power to isolate and quarantine at-risk citizens, some civil rights activists say these measures violate individual liberty.

"Quarantining somebody is an extraordinary deprivation of their liberties," American Civil Liberties Union senior policy analyst Jay Stanley told CNBC. "There's a burden on the government to determine that it's really using the least restrictive alternative."

Coronavirus illustration

Coronavirus illustration

Courtesy CDC/Alissa Eckert

Beyond political implications, quarantining people may yield negative psychological effects. In a recent episode of the American Psychological Association's "Speaking Psychology" podcast, host Kaitlin Luna cited research on people who were quarantined during the SARS epidemic.

"They found that many had psychological distress including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression," she said. They found that the longer someone was quarantined, the higher likelihood that he or she would experience PTSD symptoms. Obviously, this shows that being isolated from others can bring up a host of negative feelings."

But what about the millions of Americans who will never be quarantined or become infected? How will they respond psychologically? The advice from most health professionals seems to be: start preparing yourself.

"The most important recommendation is don't panic, but prepare," Dr. Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, told Vox. "We're not going into a crazy movie situation where the world is on fire, but we may be going into a situation where there are people walking around who are sick."

The 'adjustment reaction'

Part of mentally preparing yourself involves understanding what some crisis communicators and psychiatrists call the "adjustment reaction." This phenomenon describes how people typically react to a new and potentially serious risk, like coronavirus. For example, people tend to: pause, become over-vigilant, personalize the risk, and take extra precautions.

The adjustment reaction isn't necessarily a negative or naive response to crisis. Rather, it seems to help people cope, and to prevent overreactions down the road.

"The 'adjustment reaction' is a step that is hard to skip on the way to the new normal," risk communications experts Jody Lanard and Peter Sandman wrote in a blog post about coronavirus. "Going through it before a crisis is full-blown is more conducive to resilience, coping, and rational response than going through it mid-crisis."

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Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

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Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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