by Sam Goldstein, PhD
A few days ago, I visited with a young teen I’ve been working with over the past year. Despite strong intelligence and achievement, this young man struggles with anxiety and friendships. His mother reported to me that in the past few weeks he had been demonstrating volatile emotional outbursts in response to every day issues at home. This pattern of behavior was very uncharacteristic of this normally calm, quiet young man. Coincidentally his mother reported to me that her husband, this boy’s father, had seemingly become obsessed with the Corona Virus. Days before schools were officially closed, he had his children stop attending school. Days before gatherings were limited, he had the employees in his company begin working from home. According to his wife he sat for days on the couch watching the news. His conversation with family members was focused on the pandemic and the worst possible potential outcomes. My patient’s mother finally asked him to stop, believing her son’s outbursts were in response to the increased stress being caused by his father’s behavior. As I visited with this boy, he acknowledged in response to my questions that he had been having outbursts at home. Surprisingly he told me he wasn’t very worried about the virus or becoming ill. He was stressed by his father’s behavior and worried about what will happen to his family.
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 has evolved at a slow creep until critical thresholds were reached and governments began to act. Even then their actions have rolled out slowly over days and weeks until our country is coming 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 phones. Cable news stations are devoting twenty-four-hour coverage of the pandemic. For better or worse we have truly become a global village. As with this teen’s father I think we are beginning to see some of our children, friends, family and neighbors succumb to these events. I believe it is reasonable to refer to this phenomenon as Corona Virus 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 individual person 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 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 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 children the world isn’t ending.
- Consider a budget for spending if needed over the next 3 months.
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. But in our genes are also the seeds of hope, optimism, motivation and empathy, the foundations of resilience. Resilience is about functioning adequately under stress. It is a resource we all possess and most certainly must harness in the coming months and years.