Recognizing and Managing Coronavirus Stress Syndrome in Yourselves and Your Students
By Sam Goldstein, Ph.D.
Following the terrible tragedy on September 11, 2001, rates of mental health problems among all ages spiked. Some people, however, had an extremely difficult time coping with the horrifying news and images. They spent days on end in front of the television or computer digesting every story or piece of news they could find. They ate and slept less. They disregarded their hygiene. The tragedy and a dire future were all they could speak about. Though never formally defined, the mental health field began referring to these people as experiencing Post 9/11 Stress Disorder. Over the coming months, some individuals worked through their worries on their own or with the support of family and friends. Some, however, required mental health treatment and psychiatric care.
Unlike the 9/11 tragedy, an unexpected, sudden event, the virus Pandemic evolved at a slow creep until critical thresholds were reached and governments began to act. Even then, their actions rolled out slowly over days, weeks and now months. Our country came to a halt, much like a speeding train trying to slow down before a downed bridge. Further, the rapid growth of technology in the past twenty years is such that nearly every citizen has access to the web and television instantly on their cell phones. Cable news stations have devoted twenty-four-hour coverage of the pandemic. It was a major issue in our recent elections. For better or worse, we have truly become a global village. I believe it is reasonable to refer to this phenomenon as Coronavirus Stress Syndrome (CoViSS).
CoViSS is defined by demonstrating many or all of these signs:
- Spending hours on end watching news channels.
- Spending hours posting and reposting events related to the pandemic.
- Buying household products, foods, etc. that far exceed immediate need.
- Setting alerts on your phone for every news channel.
- Repeatedly texting friends, family and co-workers about related news events.
- Repeatedly making dire posts on social media.
- Making the pandemic all you can speak about with others.
- Ignoring daily responsibilities.
- Ignoring hygiene, rest and food.
Stress and illness have intersecting components. Many studies indicate such a link. Theories of the stress–illness link suggest that both acute and chronic stress can cause illness, and lead to changes in mental and physical health, behavior, and in how the body functions. Research indicates the type of stressor, whether it is acute or chronic, and an individual person’s characteristics, such as age and physical well-being before the onset of the stressor, can combine to determine the effect of stress on an individual. A person’s personality, genetics, and childhood experiences, including possible major stressors and traumas, may also predispose their response to an event such as a viral pandemic.
If these symptoms fit you, a family member, student or loved one, don’t despair. The lesson we learned from 9/11 is that most people over time draw strength from family and friends and eventually return to more normal behavior. However, it never hurts to bring your concerns about yourself to a mental health professional if you experience CoViSS, or speak to a student, friend or family member in whom you recognize these signs. For all of us I suggest:
- Limit your news watching to ½ hour per day.
- Turn off all alerts from news channels on your devices.
- Attend to daily responsibilities.
- Work if you can.
- Keep busy with family activities even if restricted to home.
- Resist posting or texting bad news.
- Reassure your students the world isn’t ending.
- Get enough sleep
- Eat healthy.
- Speak to a mental health counselor if needed.
The late singer songwriter Tom Petty wrote in his classic song Crawling Back to You, “Most things I worry about never happen anyway”. Worry is in our genes. It keeps us alert and aware of danger. But worry can also consume us if we are not vigilant and proactive, further complicating challenging situations and times. But so too is hope, optimism, motivation and empathy, the foundations of resilience. Resilience is about functioning adequately during challenging times. It is a resource we all possess and most certainly must harness in these difficult times.
Sam Goldstein, Ph.D., is an Assistant Clinical Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine, with expertise in school psychology, child development, and neuropsychology. He is Clinical Director of the Neurology, Behavior Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is a Board Certified Pediatric Neuropsychologist and has authored or co-authored over 50 books including his forthcoming book with Bob Brooks, Tenacity in Children. Sam is also a member of CDL’s Professional Advisory Board.