Psychotherapist breaks down COVID-19
Question and answer with Laura Cavanagh
May 28, 2020
Prof. Laura Cavanagh has explanations for a lot of things. A mom, clinician and author of Essentials of Understanding Psychology, she can tell you why we were happier last year when the Raptors won the NBA championship or why some of us feel anxious as the province begins reopening the economy.
Ms. Cavanagh, Program Co-ordinator of Seneca’s Behavioural Sciences diploma program, has been working in psychological services for more than 10 years. With extensive experience in clinical practice, including in the foster care system and in addictions treatment, she sat down with Seneca News this week to talk about how different people deal with the fear and stress that come with the spread of COVID-19.
SN: Why did we see such different reactions as the COVID-19 lockdown was coming into effect, with some people stockpiling while others were insisting on going on their cruise vacation?
LC: When we are out of our normal routine, we are faced with many decisions that we do not have to make when we are simply following our regular routine. In the weeks leading up to our current point, people were deciding about their comfort level with the gym, movie theatres, concerts, planned trips, etc. Now with more serious restrictions in place, we are facing new decisions every day, from the mundane (should I get dressed if I’m not leaving my home?) to the serious (how can I make sure my elderly parents get their medications?).
Psychologists describe a phenomenon known as a decision fatigue that occurs when individuals are faced with decision after decision after decision, as we are all experiencing these days. When people hit decision fatigue, they start to become irrational in their decision-making and it tends to push their behaviours out of the rational zone and into the irrational extremes. You will often see people become reckless, panicked or, often, completely paralyzed.
SN: We know that social distancing is supposed to slow the spread of the virus. But beyond that, are there any benefits to this practice?
LC: Unfortunately, isolation can increase feelings of anxiety. Interpersonal connection helps to keep us calm and centred. So, it is more important than ever to seek out ways to experience interpersonal connection even while practising social distancing. Technology can be a really helpful tool. My son had a play date with a group of friends on Google Hangouts. My daughter watched a movie with her friends on Netflix Party. I spent some time with friends on Zoom. This is especially important if you live alone.
In terms of benefits, there is certainly an opportunity to reconnect with those that you are isolating with during this time. Play board games, do at-home workouts, solve puzzles, go for walks — spend some quality time with those you love.
SN: How might the transitioning of in-person classes to online affect students and professors in terms of the way they learn and teach?
LC: Learning is fundamentally more of a social than solitary activity. Part of the reason that educational systems have been set up the way they are across almost all cultures is that we benefit from constructing knowledge through the experience of interacting with and learning from others. There is a difference between information and knowledge. It’s why reading books or looking up information on the internet does not match the experience of a classroom. The challenge is to find ways to make learning a constructivist process even when it is being delivered in a more isolationist format.
SN: How much coronavirus news and information should we take in and how much should we ignore?
LC: If you’re not an epidemiologist or an infectious diseases specialist, you do not need a live update on the number of new cases and deaths. It won’t change your behaviour, will it? I mean, you won’t stop washing your hands if there are 20 new cases today as opposed to 25. The constant barrage of news is not needed in terms of dictating your behaviour and it is not helpful in terms of your mental health. Your brain does not distinguish between new and existing threats so the constant stream of information is interpreted by your brain as a relentless barrage of oncoming danger. This sends you into fight-or-flight mode, which keeps you in a high-stress state, which takes a toll on your physical and mental health.
SN: As the province begins reopening the economy, are there steps we need to take to adjust to “normal life” again?
LC: Absolutely! My hope is that we’ll experience a renewed gratitude for many of the things we’ve taken for granted. I think I’ll feel a whole new appreciation for getting to do things that I tended to think of before as the things I had to do. However, I think that we should prepare ourselves for the fact that there will likely be a long period of adjustment, psychologically speaking.
We already know that the reopening will be gradual. And many of the things that we look forward to will simply not be happening this summer. Even for those things that we are able to do, partaking in these activities might not be without a tinge of fear. We have adjusted to a new reality in lockdown. As the restrictions ease, we are asking ourselves to recalibrate and reorganize what we consider to be dangerous and what we consider to be safe. And that’s not easy to do! We’re giving ourselves mental whiplash as we re-evaluate the risk of every single thing we want to do. So even though the restrictions are lifting, we are still experiencing the same decision fatigue as we each decide for ourselves what risk is tolerable to us personally.