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Will there be light at the end of the tunnel? That's the question on many minds these days Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Can we please skip 2020?” A post with these words doing the rounds on social media may seem random, but it’s a thought many relate to in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and its ripple effects on people’s lives.

From the still dismal news about the spread of the disease, the constant fear of contracting it and the lack of a cure, to the unprecedented psychological, social and economic ramifications we must contend with on a daily basis, an overwhelming sense of negativity has gripped the world today.

But is the feeling as hopeless as it appears to be? Why is it so difficult to stay positive amid the pandemic? And is there a way out?

‘Negativity bias’ at work

Devika Mankani, psychologist at The Hundred Wellness Centre and the Sunmarke School, said, “The magnitude of this global event has left the world in shock. No one could have anticipated this crisis and so the lack of preparedness for what has come our way is so significant that many people are still dealing with the shock.”

The positive-negative asymmetry can affect our ability to experience positivity, making it even more critical during these times to intentionally guide us towards positive emotions. This is not a luxury, it is the key to mental and physical health.

- Devika Mankani, psychologist at The Hundred Wellness Centreand Sunmarke School

She said in psychology, the term “negativity bias” is used to refer to our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily, but also to dwell on these events. “Also known as positive-negative asymmetry, this can affect our ability to experience positivity, making it even more critical during these times to intentionally guide ourselves towards positive emotions. This is not a luxury, it is the key to mental and physical health. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty which is manifesting as anxiety, depression and panic for some.”

That trapped feeling

Dr Laila Mahmoud, specialist psychiatrist, Medcare Hospital Sharjah, said the negativity surrounding COVID-19 is due to a lot of factors, but all stemming from the unknown.

“We have the unknown nature of the illness as it is totally new, with no proven expertise in treatment or cure. Then there’s the unknown future, how and when will all this end? The loss of jobs, dim chances of finding alternative employment, closure of international borders, disabling of flights – all these things have had a direct effect on people. They get the feeling of being trapped.”

There is no limitation to the fear as the source of infection of this rapidly transmitting illness can be anywhere. There’s also the fear of quarantine and stigma; loss of income, long-term effects on the economy ... the list goes on.

- Dr Laila Mahmoud, specialist psychiatrist, Medcare Hospital Sharjah

She said people live in constant fear as even asymptomatic persons can be infectious. “There is no limitation for the fear as anyone a person meets can be a source of infection of this rapidly transmitting illness. There’s also the fear of stigma and quarantine; loss of income, long-term effects on the economy … the list can go on.”

Question of psychological bargaining

Mankani said the first thing people are responding to is the shock associated with the situation. “Many are fearful of serious illness, loss of job or income and struggling with isolation during lockdown. Unfortunately, many have already experienced these things and are dealing with the fallout and grief. The outcome for each person is different depending on their circumstances. This can create a fair amount of psychological bargaining where one person compares their grief and loss to another, often feeling like they are worse off.”

One of the families Mankani is working with is struggling with “cabin fever”. It’s a feeling many describe as a result of being restricted to their homes. “We worked out a family contract where they had to discuss the challenges they predict, brainstorm possibilities, try out solutions and discuss their successes as a family every other day. Stress can cause communication to break down, so I always start with reimagining the way everyone speaks to each other,” said the psychologist.

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Many struggle with cabin fever when they are forced to stay indoors for long Image Credit: Stock photo

Shift to psychological immunisation

“As the world waits for a cure or a vaccine, what we need to focus on right now is psychological immunisation which will boost our physical and psychological wellbeing,” she added.

One way to do this, according to her, is to tap into the research in the field of positive psychology to point us towards the right strategies to flourish despite the difficult circumstances. She cited Dr Sheldon Cohen who studied the rhinovirus (related to coronavirus) and found statistically that people who are more cheerful and positive are less likely to get sick. “And when they do, they have lesser symptoms and recover faster. So if we can create a sense of joy and happiness, we may bring on a much-needed boost to our immune system.”

Time to rearrange your thoughts

Unless people make a conscious effort to rewire their thinking to stay positive, Dr Mahmoud said psychiatric issues like depression, anxiety, personality disorders like antisocial and borderline personality disorder, or even eating disorders like anorexia nervosa can set in. In extreme cases, these disorders can also make some vulnerable people feel suicidal. “This feeling could stem from many stressors beyond one’s capacity to cope, loss of interest of life or anhedonia which is the inability to feel the pleasure of normally pleasurable activities,” she said.

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One must consciously rearrange one's thoughts to avoid slipping into depression Image Credit: Shutterstock

To come out of the negativity, the psychiatrist said people should rearrange their thoughts, stop being distracted by select stimuli and inputs.

She said, “It helps to tell yourself that it is just a matter of time before things can turn around, so just be optimistic and wait, nothing stays forever.”

She said, “Always have a belief that we cannot change the things happening to us, but we can change how they affect us, so we should learn not to panic and have faith that things will get better.”

She said it may not always be easy, but staying positive and strong is the key. “Job loss for instance can be hard, but may be this is the time to change your career, to make a move in your life. As long as you have a breath in your chest, you can still impact a change on yourself and others,” she added.

Antidotes to cope with COVID uncertainty

Mankani recommends the following tips to deal with the negative bias surrounding the pandemic:

Limit the news: Use the news for information and updates, not to re-live the distress and challenges over and over again. This raises our cortisol levels and can disrupt the ability to plan ahead and move forward.

Play to your strengths: Yes, we all have them. Doing a character strength analysis and using these results to understand how you can get through difficult situations such as these are recommended.

Cheer for humanity: Never before have we heard so many stories of humanity shining through, going beyond what was expected to help others and make all of this a little easier. If you aren’t leading your own campaign to help and make a difference in some way, join an existing campaign. Remember helping others creates just as much happiness for the giver as for the receiver. We are wired for generosity so this will help you connect with yourself because it is a human instinct that often craves expression.

Nurture your humour: This may seem selfish when there is so much suffering at the moment but it is similar to the healing effects of listening to music. Laughter reduces stress hormones and releases endorphins which help us stay calm and motivated. Laughter also expands our diaphragm which sends signals to our nervous system to calm down. This enables us to think more clearly and make better decisions for ourselves and others.

Reminisce: Yes, by directing your thoughts towards happy times you are recreating the same physiological and psychological responses your experienced in the past. The brain doesn’t distinguish between the past and the present so taking a walk down the lane of good memories is another tool we can use to benefit our health.

Re-tool: The lockdown has forced many people to rethink and restructure our life. This can mean looking for ways to upgrade current skills or change careers altogether. “One of my clients lost her job in sales and was devastated. Within 12 days she had taken a crash course in social media management and is not running business accounts for seven small companies. She found her silver lining,” said Mankani.