Coping in a pandemic

Dr David Morrison

Practitioner Psychologist

We are now into the second month of lockdown in Northern Ireland. So far, over 350 people here have sadly lost their lives to COVID-19. We’ve read heartbreaking accounts in The Impartial Reporter of families forced to say goodbye over the telephone, or to watch their loved one’s funeral on the internet.

We have been left in no doubt about the deadliness of this virus. Faced with such a threat, it’s natural to feel fear, anxiety, despair and confusion. Some of us will be on edge and irritable, especially towards the family who we’ve been ‘stuck’ at home with for over a month. We may be sleeping more than usual or not able to sleep at all. With a mind full of worries about the pandemic or the stress of caring responsibilities, it’s likely that we’re finding it difficult to concentrate and we’re not as productive as usual.

These are all perfectly normal reactions to a virus that threatens our existence and has changed our way of life. When faced with a life or death situation like the one we’re in, our body reacts with the ‘fight or flight’ response. It’s designed to help us fight off attackers or escape from harm. It begins with a rush of adrenaline in the body which acts like pushing a car accelerator pedal to the floor. The adrenaline causes our heart to beat faster than normal so that it can pump more blood to our vital organs and major muscle groups. To help with this, our digestion slows and blood is diverted away from extremities, so our fingers and toes might feel cold. Our muscles tense to prepare us to attack or run. We start to breath more rapidly to take in more oxygen. Our senses - especially sight and hearing - become sharper. And our mind races to help us spot all the potential threats and quickly figure out solutions.

All of this happens without our awareness or control. In fact, it’s quite likely that you’ve already experienced some of these effects - to some degree - without realising. Think

about any changes in your body that you’ve noticed over the last month: does the ‘fight or flight’ response help to explain them?

The ‘fight or flight’ response is very effective for dealing with short-term and visible threats, like being mugged. However, it is less effective for threats we can’t see - like a virus - and where the threat lasts for a long time. When we can’t see the threat but we know it’s there, our mind assumes the worst and leaves the ‘fight or flight’ response switched on. Our body keeps the accelerator pedal stuck to the floor. This means it’s difficult to fully relax. When this goes on for a long time it begins to wear our body out. It’s the same as driving a car with the accelerator down for too long: eventually you have to slow up or the engine overheats.