Cross Country Checkup·Q&A

COVID-related anxiety is common, but many are learning to overcome it, says psychologist

Dr. Steven Taylor, author of The Psychology of Pandemics, says COVID-19 is causing widespread anxiety and social disconnection among people — but most of us should expect a full recovery once it subsides, thanks to our collective resilience.

'Just about everything we're seeing in this pandemic has been seen or observed in previous pandemics'

People wear face masks as they walk through the newly reopened Marché Bonsecours in Montreal in August. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
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When Dr. Steven Taylor pitched a book explaining the psychology of pandemics in 2019, his publisher at the time rejected it.

"He said it's an interesting idea, but no one's going to read this book," Taylor, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia, told Checkup guest host Adrienne Arsenault.

Luckily for Taylor, another publisher took the idea on, and in October 2019, The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease hit store shelves — months before the rise of COVID-19.

He told Arsenault the pandemic is causing widespread anxiety and social disconnection among people, but most of us should expect a full recovery once it subsides, thanks to our collective resilience.

Here's part of their conversation.

What are the psychological changes that you were seeing right before your eyes during this pandemic? 

It was one thing to spend two years writing about it, but it was surreal to see all those things unfold in real time in front of my eyes: the rise of racism, the anticipatory anxiety, the panic-buying and also the rise of conspiracy theories and people denying the whole reality of the thing.

It is messy and complicated, but just about everything we're seeing in this pandemic has been seen or observed in previous pandemics or outbreaks too, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Steven Taylor is a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia and author of The Psychology of Pandemics. (Submitted)

Research has found that a number of people who've developed SARS, after they recovered, they develop chronic post-traumatic stress disorder.

And we've got preliminary research finding that in some of these COVID survivors, they have developed PTSD, which is an issue of concern.

For people who maybe haven't had COVID  but they're going through the physical distancing, they're going through touch starvation  what is that doing to us? 

Well, it depends how people react to this. Some people have developed what we're calling a COVID stress syndrome. So they're highly anxious about getting infected. They're worried about the socio-economic [fallout]. They're checking the media all the time, so they're having intrusive thoughts and nightmares about this.

If those people are able to connect to people, they seem to be doing a little better. But of course the whole issue around physical touch and being social animals, touch is important to us. And that can lead to feelings of detachment or isolation. And then you add the personal protective equipment and face masks, and that adds a further layer of disconnect from others.

Protesters carry signs indicating a variety of motivations and ideologies in opposition to face coverings during a march in Montreal on Aug. 8. (Jean-Claude Taliana/Radio-Canada)

But then adding to the complexity of all this, you've got another group of people who think the whole thing is exaggerated, and they believe that they're personally impervious to infection. They don't adhere to physical distancing. Interestingly, those people tend to be younger males.

Is that an echo of what was happening in 1918? Because I've read that there was an anti-mask phenomenon that existed in in 1918 as well.

Yeah, it was in 1919. It was in San Francisco that got the greatest media attention because they tried to make mask-wearing mandatory, and so some people formed what was called the Anti-Mask League, and they refused to wear masks.

The reasons they presented back then were uncannily similar to the ones present today. Back then, they said they didn't believe that masks worked. And they thought that masks were an infringement on their personal freedom. It's that kind of "give me liberty or give me death" thing.

Interestingly, the Anti-Mask League just fizzled out, as people were surrounded by mounting casualties and friends and family were dying. Suddenly people decided, "Well, maybe it is a good idea to wear masks."

And although we're seeing the rise of anti-mask sentiments now, I'm expecting that if this pandemic continues and there continues to be more fatalities, this whole anti-mask sentiment will fizzle out.

When I walk down the street, I see people bracing sometimes. Even when they see someone they know well, people you'd otherwise hug, they're stopping; they're hesitating.

Do you think we will bounce back from that? Or is there an element of that hesitation that your hunch says will stick with us?

That's a really important issue. Part of it depends on what happens. If COVID-19 disappears like SARS disappeared — I mean, SARS disappeared even before there was a vaccine — then I think most people will bounce back.

But if COVID is here to stay and becomes the new normal, then it will influence how people interact with one another. Particularly now, as we're finding that many people can be infected with the coronavirus but [remain] asymptomatic.

So in many ways it's a hidden pandemic. We don't see corpses in the street or coffins. We don't know who is infected and who is healthy. And so that can add a whole layer of hesitancy, particularly among people who take this seriously.

I'm just going to ask you, because I think this is, unfortunately, what I always do in my life, is I'm looking for a reason to be optimistic. Can you give me one? 

Although many people are distressed and finding this difficult, many people are finding ways of becoming stronger or more resilient as a result of this pandemic. [They are] finding new meaning in their life, learning to appreciate connecting with people, or learning to appreciate the little things in life.

So I'm hoping that those sorts of things will carry forth in the coming weeks and months, that people will become more resilient and more altruistic.

There will be more pandemics, but if we come through this more resilient ... having come together as a community, we'll be better equipped to handle the challenges ahead.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview with Steven Taylor produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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