How the coronavirus pandemic is changing us

These stressful and unprecedented circumstances we are living in due to the current pandemic have a deep internal effect on us, which is altering who we are as individuals, our relationships with others, and how we perceive our place in society. Even our brain’s hippocampus may have shrunk — but are these changes in our brains and behaviour short-term effects or could they change us and society more profoundly?

It has been over a year since the coronavirus outbreak was announced as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. To date, the coronavirus has claimed more than two million lives worldwide, and the virus continues to spread. This pandemic has introduced a great uncertainty to our physical condition and our economic security and is therefore influencing how we think, how we relate to others and what we value, says Professor Arie Kruglanksi at the University of Maryland. “Whether we like it or not, this huge crisis we are facing brings out the best but also the worst in us,” says Professor Kruglanski.

Arie Kruglanski ESMH scientistProfessor Arie Kruglanksi, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, and co-founder and senior investigator at the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism (START), USA: “Our place in society depended on us being able to take care of ourselves, economically and physically, and all of a sudden, we are weakened, fragile, and helpless. That is the main impact of the pandemic; the fragility, the vulnerability, the susceptibility, and the fear that this uncertain situation raises because it contains very bad possibilities threatens our sense of who we are — we lose our significance.”Read the full interview of Arie Kruglanksi

Needing certainty

The more uncertain our world seems, especially in times like these, the more we compensate by seeking out certainty. This is known as the ‘need of cognitive closure’, a term coined by Professor Kruglanksi in 1989 to describe how we make decisions. “Cognitive closure is a basic mechanism for our need to make decisions and carry out actions, otherwise we would be forever buried in thoughts,” explains Professor Kruglanski. This also means that you close your mind to new information and look for simple solutions, which could lead to allowing yourself to follow incorrect, flawed, and invalid theories that promise greatness.

Professor Arie Kruglanski says: “When the need for closure is aroused by uncertainty and fear, it predisposes you to come to quick closure or decisions, regardless of facts, and see the world in black and white. […] A person who is vulnerable and under high need for closure is very prone to simple solutions and [conspiracy] theories, and can also be susceptible to extremist ideologies.”

Patriotism and often nationalism, where people believe that their country is better at handling the coronavirus crisis and blame foreigners for spreading the virus, has risen during the pandemic, says Professor Kruglanski. He explains that this is because when the need for closure grows, the need for unity and togetherness does too so people become more ‘group-centric’, adding that we have also seen social relationships with others strengthened, as well as an increase in acts of kindness to strangers, volunteerism and community cooperation. “The biggest challenge is how to provide for people’s needs in a socially constructive way rather than a socially destructive way,” he says, pointing out that it is vital that leaders encourage cooperation and unification rather than division and conflict.

Governments also need to make people feel a part of the process and address them in their collectivity, with their collective needs and motives, otherwise they will not engage, says Professor John Drury at the University of Sussex. “When the government gives out messages about why we should wear masks or why we should distance, for example, such a message in terms of protecting yourself as an individual is less effective than a message which says ‘do it for others, do it for your community, do it for your family, do it for your neighbours, do it for your gran’.”

From ‘me’ to ‘we’

In the coronavirus crisis, as with mass emergencies and disasters, people often feel they have a shared identity — the sense that they all have a common fate — so they cooperate and help each other to escape a threat. Instead of seeing themselves as individuals, they have rapidly formed new social bonds and see themselves as a group with new strengths and abilities. “Each identity has its own values, norms, and interests. These are what determines the contours of behaviour,” says Professor Drury.

John Drury ESMH scientistProfessor John Drury, Professor of Social Psychology and Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, UK: “There is a change, a new sense of ‘we-ness’, that comes about through a perception of common fate that ‘we’re all in this together’;‘we are grouped together by the emergency and that transforms our sense of who we are and our relationship with others’. ‘They’ are now ‘us’ instead of these other individuals. So identity becomes shifted from the personal to the collective.”Read the full interview of John Drury

Early in the pandemic, there was a sense of national unity but this has declined over time and people have become more critical. “This could be linked to political events that have led to a perception amongst many people that ‘we are not in this all together’ and ‘there are some rules for them and some rules for us’,” points out Professor Drury. Research has also shown that people have not been affected by the virus equally, with frontline workers and ethnic minorities being at higher risk. However, he says, covid mutual aid groups are still very active and that sense of identity and being a part of your community is ongoing.

Changed brains

The pandemic has also changed our brains. Not only is the virus itself causing a number of neurological and psychiatric problems, but the isolation, loneliness, stress and worry caused by the pandemic can alter our brain chemistry and cause anxiety or depression, says Professor Barbara Sahakian at the University of Cambridge.

Barbara J. Sahakian ESMH scientistProfessor Barbara Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, UK: “The repeated stress is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body, which can also affect the brain. Over the long term, it can shrink the hippocampus and subsequently affect our memory and emotions. Stress can also affect levels of brain serotonin and cortisol, which can alter our mood. […] Eventually these changes can cause symptoms of depression and anxiety.”Read the full interview of Barbara Sahakian

Some of these symptoms will dissolve, she explains, but others may be more permanent changes. We can alter our brain function and its chemistry during the pandemic, and overcome the negative changes by taking simple steps, such as being kind and helpful, exercising, eating well, keeping socially connected, learning something new, and sleeping properly. “The brain is incredibly plastic, which means it is changeable and can compensate for damage,” says Professor Sahakian.

A recent UK study, which Professor Sahakian was involved in, looked at people who were isolating during the pandemic’s first lockdown. “We found that those who did not stay socially connected were showing signs of negative bias — they were focusing more on negative faces and sad faces rather than happy faces or happy information,” she says. “These are the same symptoms seen in people with depression.” On the contrary, people who stayed more socially connected had a more positive outcome.

Professor Barbara Sahakian says: “Social interaction and connectedness — even if it’s by telephone or zoom — is very important for people, while social isolation can have a very negative effect on the brain and on people’s behaviour.”

Other disruptions the pandemic has caused may also affect children more negatively too, points out Professor Sahakian. “During this critical time of social cognitive development, these children haven’t had the normal play and interaction experience they should have had,” she says, adding that adolescents’ lives are being disrupted at an important stage too, when they are becoming independent young adults. “I’m concerned about the effects of this forced isolation and restricted interaction that we’ve had to have over this very long period of time.”

Useful links:
The Conversation: 3 ways the coronavirus pandemic is changing who we are
Neuropsychopharmacology – Nature: How to best overcome the brain changes linked to the pandemic
The Psychologist: From riots to crowd safety
BJPsych Open: Public behaviour in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: understanding the role of group processes
The Conversation: Six ways to ‘reboot your brain’ after a hard year of COVID-19 – according to science
Nature: The mental wealth of nations

Related content:
A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Professor Arie Kruglanski about our need for cognitive closure during COVID-19
A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Professor Barbara J. Sahakian about brain changes during COVID-19
A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Professor John Drury about changes in social identity during COVID-19

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