Mental Health Tips for the COVID-19 Outbreak

Mental Health Tips for the COVID-19 Outbreak

Dr. Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, regularly connects psychology to world events.

Below, listen to the conversation or read the transcript, and hear Dr. Steve Joordens’s thoughts on:

  • Tips to manage anxiety and fear around the new coronavirus pandemic
  • How often you should check the news
  • How parents can talk to children about COVID-19
  • The importance of having a structured schedule at home
  • How people can beat cabin fever
  • The effects of social isolation (and how to combat)

Want to hear more from Dr. Steve Joordens?

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Coursera: [00:00:01] From Coursera, this is Emma Fitzpatrick, and today, I’m talking to Dr. Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. 

There, he teaches psychology, researches memory, and is the Director of the Advanced Learning Technologies Lab. He also regularly connects psychology to world events. 

That’s why, today, we’re talking with him about how we’re reacting to the COVID-19 outbreak. We discuss ways to manage anxiety and cabin fever, how often you should really check the news, tips to talk to your kids about this, and the psychology behind why we’re stockpiling food and toilet paper.

 Let’s go ahead and get started. 

I’m really grateful that amidst everything you could take a couple of minutes to chat and share your insights on how we all are reacting to the current COVID outbreak. 

 How have you personally been preparing or reacting to this news?

Dr. Steve Joordens: [00:00:55] Yeah. Well, I’m one of the quarantined.  I was at a conference in New Orleans–just before things really kind of got crazy or that weekend when things got crazy. And it turns out that somebody else at that conference had tested positive, and a friend of mine that I was around was symptomatic.

Coursera: [00:01:09] How’s it been affecting you? 

Dr. Steve Joordens: [00:01:10] Yeah. You know, one of the things I like to tell people. It’s really important how you think about the situation, how you frame it in your mind, cause it will affect your stress levels. I don’t think of quarantine as sort of hiding away from some nasty thing and waiting for it to go away.

I think of it in a much more empowering sense. This is our ability to do something, and it doesn’t really feel necessarily like we’re doing something, but we should think of it that way.

The best way we can support the elderly and the people with preexisting conditions is to stay at home, and that is the right thing to do in this situation that gives everything the most time to work itself out, in the best possible way. 

Coursera: [00:01:45] I‘ve seen people who may not be taking this as seriously. Do you have any advice on how to best convince and make the message resonate so that they could act differently?  

Dr. Steve Joordens: [00:01:55] I think the reason people are doing this stuff–and it’s always difficult to generalize–but think the reason they’re doing it is they’re thinking people are overreacting. And that almost suggests that the people who are isolating are isolating out of some sort of fear response. 

And so, I think in their minds, maybe that’s how they’re thinking about it. Look at all these wimps that are running away from this, and I’m not that.

But, that’s not the way those of us who are in isolation see it. We see it as we are doing the socially responsible thing. And so, I think a lot of that framing is very important.

To say to somebody like that, “Every time you go out, you are putting one of our grandparents at risk, or you are putting somebody with a preexisting health condition at risk. So, it’s not cool. It’s not brave. It’s selfish and it’s not very citizenly-like.”

We want to see good citizenship, and good citizenship means, not just social distancing, but to the extent you can, stay at home and minimize anything else that you have to do.

And you’re going to do this for a few weeks, and we’re doing this for the right reasons. And so, I think a little bit of social shaming, of a sort, at a time like this, shaming a few people so that other people literally get to live a little longer. I’m OK with that. 

Coursera: [00:03:03] I think it helps it feel easier to know that what you’re doing has an impact.

Dr. Steve Joordens: [00:03:08] Yeah. And if you can adopt somebody who maybe is in more danger, so be it an older neighbor or an older family member or maybe even somebody you don’t know, I would love it if there was a way to connect people this way.

But especially if there are children in the home, if you really say, this is why we’re doing this, we’re trying to support these people.  

Another way to support them is through social connections. We all need those social connections. So, if there was somebody that your family called every day just to check in on, and say, “How are you doing?”

But, especially for kids to show them, these are the people that are in danger, and these are the people we’re really trying to help.  And the more you make it feel like that, the less fear and anxiety the children will feel. And quite honestly, the less fear and anxiety we will feel because we’re just big children.

Coursera: [00:03:49] I’m really intrigued by the idea that you brought up about how parents can talk to children about what’s going on. What’s your take on that?

Dr. Steve Joordens: [00:03:56] In psychology, we talk about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and it sort of lays out, you know, what is on people’s minds depending on what they already have. And so, the bottom level is security. If you do not feel secure, then that is what’s on your mind all the time, and it generates a lot of anxiety. So number one: make your kids feel secure.

Let them know they are not in danger, that people their age do not die of this. And to some extent, that you are not in danger, that you are around, the family is together. You love them very much. We’re all going to get through this together. 

And again, if you can add that layer, in fact, we’re going to be a positive force in this. We’re going to help other people. That sort of punctuates the notion that they’re not in danger–that they’re part of the solution. That’s what kids need more than anything is love and security.  

They also need honesty, and they can detect lies like we don’t always give them credit for. So, they’re seeing the news. They’re seeing stuff as well. So good to be perfectly honest with them.

And the other important thing I say with kids is to make sure you budget the news.

Do not have the news on your TV all day long. But maybe twice a day, times when the kids aren’t around as much, and then maybe discover some other things.

So, for example, a lot of our smart TVs have a karaoke built-in. One of the best things you can try to fit into the day is singing or laughing.  Those both released positive endorphins that help us deal with stress. So, if you can combine those, if you as a family, sing karaoke every now and then–and even if you can’t sing at all–all the better.

If it makes people laugh and you all have fun, make sure you get some of that in. Cause that’s the antidote. That’s the thing that will help you and your children cope with what you have to cope with, which is stress and anxiety. 

Coursera: [00:05:32] Okay. I figured there were some things you were going to say here, but singing karaoke was not my list. So, I have officially been surprised.

 So, it sounds like security, positivity, honesty, and some positive endorphins are really key there. So, on that front, parents are feeling quite anxious themselves. So, I would assume that the security layer for children would be not acting especially anxious in front of your children. Is that accurate?

Dr. Steve Joordens: [00:06:00] Well, yes, although that’s hard. It’s accurate, but it’s difficult at a time like this, and it may become false. So if the children are buying it, then they’re thinking you’re even more anxious because you’re hiding it  

What I would recommend for everybody is understand what anxiety is. First of all, like what, what is this feeling? Because it’s something that we feel in our whole bodies. And it’s relatively quick to explain. I’ll try my most efficient version. 

Our bodies are wired with two modes. When everything’s going well, we’re in relaxation mode, and our body is converting what we ate into nutrients–spreading them to our body and giving us longterm health.

But if we ever feel suddenly under threat, then something called our sympathetic nervous system kicks in–or our fight or flight system. That fight or flight system puts all this energy in our body, makes our heart beat faster, makes us breathe heavier. And we’re under threat all the time now. And it also, by the way, compels us to do something to fight or flee. And part of the problem here is it’s not always obvious.  

So, letting children know, those feelings, that tension you feel in your body, that is because of this sort of threat that we’re all living on. But then trying to, again, minimize the threat  So, you try to reduce that, but also letting them understand it. And teaching them and teaching yourself how to oppose that reaction by learning formally how to relax. 

Coursera: [00:07:18] Could you offer a couple of tips on how when you are feeling overcome by anxiety–whether you’re a parent, whether you’re a child–what can you do to manage that and how can you help reduce that feeling?

Dr. Steve Joordens: [00:07:29] Yeah. There is a very good thing to do. In fact, we’ve been doing it in clinical therapy for a long time, and it’s called guided relaxation. It’s often the first step of helping somebody with anxiety or a phobia. You teach them this trick to literally be cool, for lack of a better term, to stop emotions from overcoming them.

You can go to YouTube or anywhere on the internet and type guided relaxation. You’ll find audio things. You’ll find videos. There’s no voodoo to it. 

It basically will say, lay down, and they may start from your feet up. They might say like, clench your feet, clench them as hard as they can and do it till it hurts. And then let go, and feel what that feels like. Feel that relaxation and maybe associate it with a word, like beach or something like that. And now, let’s go to your calves. And so, they work all the way through your body–tensing and then relaxing muscles–and what you end up with is a real feeling of “Oh, my whole body does feel totally relaxed!”

So, you can feel what full relaxation feels like. Many of us haven’t felt that for a while, and you can associate that with a word.

So, I recommend people do this–maybe even get your kids to do it–just before bed every night, both to clear all the crap of the day that we’re dealing with and put us in a relaxed state. So, we’ll hopefully sleep well, which is also key.  

But if we do it night after night, it can become a skill, and we can suddenly be in a real-life situation, where we feel our emotions bubbling up and we feel that energy in our body. And we can say, “Beach. Beach.” And we can push our mind because you can’t stop anxiety by saying stop being anxious.

You stop it by saying switch to relax mode.  It’s not easy. It takes some practice. But if people learn it–and now it was a great time to learn it– it’s something you have all through your life. Anytime there’s an anxiety-provoking situation, you can kind of bring yourself down and be cool and react in a cool way.

Coursera: [00:09:11] That’s a great piece of advice. And I know you mentioned this earlier about being mindful about the amount of news that you’re watching in front of your children.  If you’re feeling anxious, should you also limit how much news you’re ingesting?

 Dr. Steve Joordens: [00:09:26] 100 percent. And then let’s talk about that really quickly. The key to almost every addiction in human behavior is something called random reinforcement. So, imagine your cell phone. You have to check your cell phone so many times a day because something cool might have happened since you last checked. And so you check to see if something cool is happening, and no, it hasn’t.  But almost immediately after you checked, you think, “Well, maybe something cool just happened,” and so, it pushes you to check again. 

Right now, we’re all hungry for information. We’re living in this world of ambiguity. Our brain does not like that at all.

It wants information, and so we have this habit of keeping the news on and occasionally finding something that gives us that hit and makes us want to stay connected to the news. But it’s also kind of making us obsessive-compulsive. It’s constantly reminding us of the threat we’re under and constantly re-engaging our sympathetic nervous system. 

So, almost none of the news we hear now is so timely that if we heard it four hours later, you know, it would matter. It doesn’t matter if we hear it now or four hours later.  So if you can, budget. 

And I also like this sort of cleanse your palette notion. You know, when you go out and you eat, and then they have something to kind of cleanse the previous course before you get to the next course.  After you watch your news, watch some silly sitcom or something that was recorded before all this happened and just kind of get the news out of your head. 

Get your information fix, and then try to pull your brain somewhere else by exposing it to whatever. It could be a soap opera or whatever it is. And then pull it there before you say, go to bed.  

And then if you go to bed, do the relaxation, guided relaxation, and then get a good night’s sleep. And then eat well, and aerobic exercise. We could sneak in there too.

By the way, this is just a weird psychological thing that we’ve never understood. But for mood disorders, aerobic exercise makes people feel happier. We don’t completely know why, but it’s absolutely true. So if you have some exercise machine in your basement and you have time on your hands, you could actually accomplish something while you’re at home.

You could work on your physical health while you’re working on your mental health. You can think I’m accomplishing something.

You can also accomplish something in many other ways. I mean, this is Coursera. I have to say! There are platforms like Coursera online that have courses. Like maybe you want to upgrade a certification. Maybe you always want to learn about astronomy.  

So, instead of binge-watching Netflix, which is not very psychologically nourishing, if you spend time and you actually accomplish something while you’re home, that will make you feel better too.

If you’re using your time in a positive way for personal development, that’s a very positive thing, too. So, anything you can do to make this not time you’re just sitting around, but time, in which something is actually being improved, is a good idea. 

Coursera: [00:11:50] Is cabin fever a real thing? And do you think people are going to be experiencing it within the next couple of weeks of staying at home? 

Dr. Steve Joordens: [00:11:58] Certainly, anytime our usual behaviors are restricted in some way, we feel that. And there’s things that we always used to do that we’re going to crave, be it going out to restaurants. Or, you know, for me, I love live music, so not being able to see live music in the real way is kind of a drag.

So, there’s no doubt, yes, we’re going to get a little fidgety. We’re going to want to do things. That’s where the aerobic exercise, and things like that, can help. 

But, I think this might also be a good time–just kind of tying some of the things we talked about it together. 

All of these mental health things we’re talking about for dealing with our current situation are good mental health things in general. So, learning a lot of these skills is kind of setting you up for good things after this all ends. And it’s really important. 

So, I want to double stress that for the following reason. Everything we talked about–the sympathetic nervous system being active–it’s not meant to be active for a long period of time. It’s meant to be active, so we can deal with the predator or run away or fight.  And now we have it chronically active.  

The problem with that is it impairs our immune system, if it happens too long.  So, we actually become more susceptible to things like this virus.

I don’t think it’s just a good idea to look after your mental health.  I think it’s really important cause if it’s three weeks, okay. If it’s six weeks?

So, at some point, we’re going to have cabin fever combined with a suppressed immune system, and then it does become dangerous if we start feeling the need to get out and do stuff.

And we’re, in fact, in a worse physical situation to handle the virus then than we are now. It’s a real problem.  

So, all this to say, fight the cabin fever, and work on your mental wellness at the same time, that’s the best thing you could be doing at this time. 

Coursera: [00:13:32] And then another thing that we briefly mentioned but didn’t go into too deeply is social isolation. You know, some people may be home alone–only home with one, two other people. 

So, how could they be impacted over the coming weeks from a social isolation standpoint?

Dr. Steve Joordens: [00:13:51] Our natural way of dealing with anxiety is through our social connections. If you think of any, you know, mass shooting or horrible events that have happened, you often see outrage right after. But, you also almost always see the community physically coming together and supporting one another. And that’s a very important part of the healing process around stressful events.  

This is so insidious because what we have to do, in order to have a positive force here, is not to be social. And that’s sort of an opposite thing. So it’s kind of robbing us of our number one coping strategy. But, it need not rob us.

I mean, you and I are having a pretty deep conversation right here. Technology does allow human interactions. I think very often we’ve used social media to have kind of shallow interactions with each other.  I think we have to learn to use it to have much deeper ones now. 

And even, you know, there’s this thing that people don’t always talk about anymore. It’s called a telephone, telephone. It’s very useful for human interactions. So, calling those family members, that maybe, you know, back a week or two ago, you think, “Oh, I should be keeping in better touch with so-and-so.” Well, you should be, and this is a good time. And connecting with them, talking through the anxiety, sharing your anxieties, and just kind of telling each other, “Hey, I’m here. I love you. We’re all connected.”

And it really does sort of let us dissipate the stress. 

So, yeah. By all means, social, social, social. That’s another really good way to kind of relax some of those anxieties. 

Coursera: [00:15:13] I like that. Any other tidbits on the social isolation front people should keep in mind?

Dr. Steve Joordens: [00:15:18] We underestimate the importance of what I would call the ritual we do every day–be it driving to work and greeting our people and grabbing a coffee now and then. 

And you know, all these little dalliances we have through our day, they kind of add structure. They punctuate our day, and they kind of move us along.  

And sometimes when people are home alone, that’s gone. And so, they sit in front of the TV for a while, but they’re really left, like, “What do I do?”

And that’s where some of these things that have a positive value can add. Okay, I am doing something, but also adding structure. Adding structure, however you can, will make you feel a little more grounded. 

Without it, you kind of feel like you have no anchor, and you’re floating around. 

And in fact, in the most extreme, in solitary confinement in jails, if people are left there too long, they lose their whole sense of identity.

It’s like who we are is sort of defined by what we do every day and who we connect with. And when suddenly we’re not getting any of that structure and any of that feedback, we start to kind of feel like we’re even losing our identity.  

So, that’s where the structure and the social interactions are so important to kind of make us continue to feel some sense of normalcy, even though nothing is normal.

Coursera: [00:16:23] Right. And how do you stay positive or optimistic amidst all this uncertainty and anxiety?  

Dr. Steve Joordens: [00:16:31] Yeah. I mean, it’s hard. You mentioned cabin fever. When people are in isolation too long, they start to show mood swings as well, and they will show frustration and grouchiness. 

And so managing your emotional states is difficult. Back to karaoke! But, literally, the best thing for you will be to feel like you’re doing some good. 

That’s one of the ways to keep that positive mindset is to feel like you’re contributing in some way. And we’ve talked about a few ways you could do that.

Man, I honestly, I’m just going to say 100% that, you know, you have someone like me come on, and I talk like I have all the answers to everything, but nobody has ever seen this level of ambiguity. 

And I don’t know what next week holds in terms of how we will psychologically be coping because we’ve never had the whole globe as anxious as we all are at the same time, over the same thing. And it’s really just something we’ve never seen before. 

So, I think for us to stay positive, we have to feel like there’s a plan, and there’s a role for us in some way. And those sorts of things can kind of keep us on track and keep us balanced.

Because I think staying positive would be great. Preventing that downward spiral is, I think, is the more important part. 

Coursera: [00:17:38]  That’s great advice, and then the other thing that I did want to talk to you about is people going out and buying a lot of items, a lot of canned foods, toilet paper.

So, I would be really interested in hearing your take on why this is our psychological response to kind of stockpile these things and then ways we can fight that impulse?  

Dr. Steve Joordens: [00:17:59] There’s the original, of course, toilet paper run, let’s call it. And that was kind of interesting to look back on from a psychological perspective because it is just like we talked about. People were starting to feel anxiety. They want to do something.

And I think for a lot of people, the first thought that comes to mind is, “Well, the only thing I can do is prepare.” And there’s a certain rationality to that, to being prepared to a certain extent.

Then, you see the toilet paper thing happen in Australia, so a little pocket of irrationality, where a bunch of people were fighting over toilet paper. But somebody took a video. 

Humans engage in a lot of what we call observational learning. Monkey see, monkey do. And so, when you start seeing that sort of panic, you’re more likely to engage in it yourself. And so, the more it happens, the more people are likely to get out there. So, I think that was the original toilet paper one.

Then, I think people were just stockpiling for two weeks of isolation. So we kept hearing 14-day isolation, and I think people are thinking, “Okay, I have to get so much stuff.” But more recently, and I think this is what’s happening over the weekend, we’re hearing hints of, “Is there going to be enough food? Can the supply chain support this, and how long with all these employees out?”

And that’s another threat. That’s rung one of Maslow’s Hierarchy, basic physiological needs. So, when people start worrying that food supply might run out, that hits them at their most primitive–especially if they truly believe that could happen.

The problem, of course, is it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. That if people get food when they need it, if we all do this communally, then that will be much easier on the supply chain. And if people keep doing the crazy buying, that’s when we’re actually going to see things running out because they were consumed too quickly or bought too quickly.

That’s going to feed the impression in others that things will run out. And so there’s the danger of a snowball. 

I think understanding is critical. So that’s the antidote to fear, right? So, fear makes us act irrationally and just buy that whole row of food

So, I teach the Introduction to Psychology class on Coursera. I’m Steve Joordens, and the course really tries to give you a sense of you. It is a course about how your brain works, how your mind works.

The influence that other people may have on you–and questions like your personality: how much of that is really your mother’s personality, and how much of that is a function of things that you’ve done in your life?

So, we look at all sorts of issues related to psychology, including, of course, clinical issues, and mental health issues.

And the hope is that when you emerge from the course, you, kind of, understand the world better, but especially understand the way you’re interacting with the world better. And hopefully, you leave with some skills and some knowledge that just helps you be more successful in life. And that’s really the goal of the course.

If you’d like to take it, see you there! 

Coursera: [00:20:33] To learn more from Dr. Steve Joordens, go to today to enroll for free in his course, Introduction to Psychology.

And as always, thanks for listening, and happy learning.