Prof. Rebecca Jacoby, Head of MTA's M.A. in Medical Psychology
After the First Gulf War, a father was interviewed on the only TV channel in Israel at the time and spoke proudly of his decision to call his newly born twins Nachman and Shai, named after a man who earned the title "The National Calmer." Shai, who then served as the IDF spokesman, appeared every night on the screen and with a confident voice sent reassuring messages to the people sitting in sealed rooms. His demeanor helped many people cope with anxiety and so he was rightly awarded his honorary title. Today, in the midst of another national crisis, we are constantly bombarded from the screens with negative messages that evoke anxiety, panic and stress reactions.
The main psychological problem with the Corona epidemic is the uncertainty and sense of lack of control. How long will it last? Are we all doomed? What can I do to protect myself and my family? Individuals, as well as families, do not know if they have enough resources to survive the difficult period. Uncertainty puts you in a state of stress, which can manifest in physical phenomena such as shortness of breath, chest pressure and more, which can be interpreted by those who experience them as having a heart attack or can raise the fear of having contracted the virus. Anxious people who experience these symptoms seek medical assistance, which burdens further the already overloaded health care system.
When information is already divulged to the public, it is done in a serious news conference at 8 pm, with a politician as the speaker. The language used is that of the battlefield: We are in the midst of a (global) war, there is an enemy that threatens to annihilate us all, we must fight it with known battlefield methods, etc. The question that arises, without getting into political issues, is what does a politician have to do with complex professional issues like epidemiology? Of course, medical officials are occasionally allowed a few minutes of broadcast time, which they use to mostly explain to the public what not to do. Then the screen returns to images of empty supermarkets, and then on to reports of the number of dead in Italy and the fall of the stock exchange. Global chaos.
No word of reassurance, no sign of hope.
Even if this seeding of anxiety is not intentional, it is systematic, it intensifies the sense of threat and panic, which certainly does not help fight the virus, which requires cooperation and some sacrifice from the public. Panic sowing does not promote cooperation, sometimes even the opposite. What is needed now from the media and decision makers is to show more responsibility, to set a personal example, and not just to demand it from the public.
In order to reduce anxiety levels, the public must be provided with clear, reliable information in appropriate doses from the professionals in the field. These can explain to the public what the risk factors are and how to deal with them, both from the medical and psychological perspective. It is important to address strengths and not to focus only on the threats and dangers. Instead of talking about the difficulties in coping with the disease, one can present the successes and patients who have recovered. Instead of showing numbers in a rising column, one can talk about percentages relative to the general population. Instead of projecting a state of war that prompts civilians to ransack supermarket shelves, one can discuss the available resources, Israel having one of the best medical services in the world, and ways to deal with anxiety.
The responsibility of the leaders these days is to expose to the public the professionals who can address the feeling of uncertainty and anxiety. This is also the responsibility of the media.
And with respect to the anxious public, the thing people should amass most is not toilet paper, but internal powers, a sense of humor and means of distraction. Gluing oneself to the radio and television screen only increases anxiety levels. It is enough to get updated once a day. To relieve the feeling of anxiety, one can practice techniques like relaxation, meditation and mindfulness, as well as engage in physical activity. It is recommended to engage in meaningful activities, like reading, creating, listening to music, each according to his or her preference. For the parents among us, it is important to transmit to children that the routine continues, and not to convey a sense of stress, because they absorb our anxieties. It is also important not to forget those who are most at risk, our elders. Their loneliness, which is certainly increasing tenfold these days, may be more difficult than any virus. It is important to talk to them on the phone and send them encouraging messages and videos.
I have no doubt that if we manage to deal with the feeling of panic, we will also be able to deal with the Corona virus. Alongside implementing the Ministry of Health’s guidelines, one should also look at nature, take a deep breath and smile.