The relevant authorities have compelled people to stay at home due to the outbreak of coronavirous, what is the psychological impact of that?
The psychological angle to this is that there are a lot of uncertainties and disruptions. We have a feeling of losing control over our lives because you can longer wake up and say I want to travel to anywhere in the world. There is restriction even to go to the front of your house or to go to work; the children are not going to school, so there is disruption.
And what that does to us psychologically is that it makes us feel helpless that the control over our physical lives has been taken away from us. And that sense of helplessness can lead to frustration and make some people become very irritable. Some people may become anxious, worry about their business, worry about their schooling and other plans they have and that can lead some people to becoming depressed.
I implore that we should be encouraged to focus on the situation. This is a new situation that is outside our control. Even governments are helpless, they are forced to act and react whether they like it or not. And so if we are in that type of situation, the next thing we can all do is to learn how to make use of the situation. And to cope with the situation, one of the simple things you can do is to ensure that we stay in touch with our families and friends, using the advantage of technology. The fact that we are physically separated from our siblings, parents, or friends because everybody is staying in their house, doesn’t mean that we cannot stay in touch.
We can stay in touch via phones, do video calls and through that, we can still have a sense of community and believe we are together. We have to support others.
What other things can one do at this time to be psychologically balanced?
Another thing we can do is to look at things to keep us busy because if you are bored due to idleness, that will increase your frustration. You look for something to engage in like learning a new language. You can get books to read or if there are some books you have in your house that you didn’t have time to read before, this is a good opportunity to read them or learn to do something.
You could learn how to cook and make some dishes. There are YouTube videos that teach people how to do different things, so it is a good opportunity to learn new things to keep you busy.
The first coping strategy I will recommend is physical exercise. Although you are in the house, you can do some exercises at home like skipping, jogging, dancing and watching exercise videos. There are many things you can do to keep healthy while at home. The fact that you are at home does not mean you should be in bed from morning till evening; it is not healthy.
You should also watch your diet, look healthy, keep your immune system healthy, eat plenty of vegetables, drink plenty of water and ensure that you have adequate sleep. Before this lockdown, we were usually busy and didn’t have enough sleep, so this is an opportunity to ensure that we allow our body to recuperate by getting a good rest.
What advice do you have for people who become anxious after receiving unpleasant news about persons being killed by COVID-19?
If watching news and being on social media will make you anxious, reduce your exposure to those things. If you watch the CNN, you will see how many people are dying in other places – that may cause a lot of anxiety. Therefore, if that is making you too anxious, you should reduce your exposure to them.
For persons who have been discharged from isolation centres but are still being stigmatised, what psychological effects do you think that will have on them?
I don’t see any reason why they should be stigmatised because people are recovering and recovering well. I don’t see the basis for that. People should not stigmatise anybody because any of us can be infected.
If someone was infected and is recovered, we should celebrate with them and welcome them back into society because they have gone through a traumatic experience.
There are people who can’t feed without going out on a daily basis; don’t you think the lockdown order can lead to depression with its unpleasant consequences?
It is unlikely. People may be more anxious. I have already stated that the stay-at-home order causes disruption in people’s businesses. There people who have shops in the market, people who have supermarkets, and there are contractors, and others. Now they all have to stay at home and not go out – their incomes will reduce. Some civil servants are being asked to stay at home on half salaries; some companies are laying workers off, so all of these are going to have emotional impact on individuals and families.
It will increase their level of anxiety on how they are going to feed their families and make ends meet. For those who are vulnerable, this may be what will make them have anxiety and depression.
Already, many people are gripped by fear as a result of the virus. What advice do you have for people at this trying time?
You may be rational and calm in your home, then you turn on the news, go on social media or interact with some people and you become frightened and ‘infected’ with the fear being peddled online and by other people.
This is a heightened period of stress which is made even more difficult by the dark clouds of uncertainty and fear of not being in control of our lives.
This development leads to anxiety, worry and desperation. It is worsened by conspiracy theories, fake news, and alarmist messages being circulated to stoke fear, cause panic, and others.
Unfortunately, prolonged stress and anxiety can be harmful to our immune system – which is the major protection we have against this infection.
It also predisposes those who are vulnerable to developing mental disorders. While those with pre-existing anxiety and other emotional disorders may experience a worsening of their symptoms. Some others may turn to alcohol or drug abuse to calm their nerves.
Speaking of alcohol, some people say that alcohol is good to cure COVID-19, what do you think about that?
Alcohol cannot cure COVID-19. It is one of the stories making the rounds. When we talk about alcohol-based sanitisers, it is because the alcohol in the sanitisers helps to break the membrane of the virus. It is not about drinking it. It is for cleaning your hands. For the alcohol-based sanitiser, it is not the alcohol you drink for recreational purposes, it is medical alcohol. If you drink alcohol that goes into your stomach, the alcohol is not getting into your lungs.
There is no basis for that. It is not part of what the World Health Organisation recommends. Let us not follow what is being forwarded to us on social media, let us follow only reliable sources of information. WHO has a website. On the website, you will find facts and figures about COVID-19. We should stick to what is accurate and factual, not ‘Tales by Moonlight’ kind of stories.
What are people supposed to do to retain their sanity at this time?
At this critical time, my advice is that people should calm down and take control of their anxiety. Recognise that it is perfectly normal to be anxious, but some circumstances are outside our control and we have to deal with the uncertainty of the situation in a calm and rational manner.
We are also expected to restrict our sources of information to official and reliable sources such as the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation. Eliminate social media and cable news network if they are worsening your anxiety.
People should also avoid fearmongering and its peddlers. Deal only with facts. Fear can be contagious and it upsets our peace of mind. We should jealously guard our inner peace.
Let us strive to fight fear with facts. Focus on proactive steps that are within your control. Plan what to do with your time and how best to sustain your work and business despite the challenging times.
How do we relate with our loved ones at this time of social distancing that appears to break family bond vis-à-vis the avalanche of fake news spreading like wild fire everywhere?
It is advisable that people should responsibly comply with all official recommendations such as improving personal hygiene, washing our hands, maintaining social distance, engaging in self-isolation if there has been exposure, and so on.
There is also the imperative need for people to stay in touch with loved ones even if in self-isolation. They should spend quality time with family members to bond with them. Social distancing does not mean social isolation. Check up on loved ones and friends using technology. Having regular exercise within your compound or indoor exercise is helpful to break monotony and distract from anxiety and stress. They help us to sleep better.
Are there special diets that can boost people’s immunity to fight the virus?
Yes, eat a healthy diet and drink a lot of water. Sleep and rest well. One should study and learn new things, read books, watch movies, and engage in pleasurable activities that will lift your mood. Stay positive. This time will pass. Again, you should take stock of your life and realise that there is no such thing as: “I can’t do without a particular item or activity.” When push comes to shove, we can get by on bare essentials and still be happy.
Dr Jibril Abdulmalik is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer; University College Hospital, Ibadan
@ SIMON UTEBOR @ Punch Newspaper