During the pandemic, mental hygiene is just as important as hand washing. It’s time to disinfect your thoughts and kill the ANTs to overcome anxiety, depression, trauma, and grief. ANT is an acronym for —Automatic Negative Thoughts. Daniel G Amen, MD 2020Over one year into the pandemic while only 50 % of the US population is currently vaccinated with at least the first shot, we are seeing the importance of mental health in managing the pandemic. It is now abundantly clear, that it is because of mental health underpinnings, that the next wave of the pandemic is building. People cannot remain in isolation forever. The indefinite duration of confinement grew insurmountable to enforce and the collective civility toward social distancing and mask wearing became politically untenable for many governors. People need to socialize, be free to worship, attend weddigs and funerals, even dance in the streets, as we have seen Americans do ever since it “reopened” when state governor’s decried the pandemic under control. And we have paid the price for this. Mental health tends to be the ugly step-child of physical illness in a society that is strongly biased against the emotionally infirm in favor of the medical model of well-being. For one thing, alcohol sales increased 200 percent among Americans coping with loneliness and frustration while in quarantine. There is no doubt that people felt the stress of being cooped up during the first weeks of the pandemic. The quarantine put a strain on sensible behavior and emotional credulity over social distancing, all the while putting ANTs in our heads. In places like India and across Europe where the vaccine roll out has been less successful the infection rate has risen, and given the propagation of variants that have been reported, those who are not yet vaccinated have much to fear. Michael Sefton
On November 11, 2020, I presented a program on the Psychological Impact of Pandemic sponsored by Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital. It was well attended with a mix of nurses, midlevel practitioners, social workers, and nonclinical participants. The program was presented on the zoom platform. I am now going to put to paper my perspective narrative espoused in my 90 minute presentation. I had also invited members of law enforcement with whom I have regular contact as the information was drawn from the growing literature on mental resilience and its positive impact on coping with exposure to trauma.
According to the PEW Research Group, 4 in 10 Americans know someone who has either been afflicted with Coronavirus or someone who has died from the virus. My mother was infected with the Coronavirus in mid April in the same nursing facility where I lost my 93-year old aunt in the first wave of the virus in May, 2020. My mother survived the virus but it has taken a significant toll on her physical and cognitive well-being. We were not permitted to see my mother during her illness and my aunt was alone on May 1 when she succumbed to the virus. Both living on a nursing unit that was doing its best to render compassionate care under extraordinary conditions, in some cases with nurses, aides, and therapists working round the clock. Both of these loved ones received extraordinary care. Nursing units across the country suffered unimaginable loss of life including over 70 elderly veterans at the Soldier’s Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts. We all saw the images of refrigerated trucks holding victims in expiated purgatory hidden behind hospitals. It may bring horror to those who lost loved ones and never saw them again.
I saw my mother on November 12. She looked frail and disheveled. The nurse practitioner had ordered a blood draw out of concern for her physical well-being. She is 92 and may have a blood disorder. They had three staff people hold her in place to obtain the small sample of blood which took over and hour. She has always had difficulty having her blood drawn and this has gotten worse as she has gotten older. She fought and screamed from pain, and fear, I was told. It was torture for all those involved, including me.
Little did anyone realize the extent of disease, contagion, and trauma this pandemic would bring to the United States and the world. We waited in February and March with curiosity and vague forewarning from our leadership. We were led to believe the virus would dissipate once the weather became warm and it would essentially vanish in the heat of summer. This did not happen and public health officials at CDC and WHO were spot-on in terms of the contagious spread of covid-19 and the deaths it would bring. Now with the approach of winter our fear borders on panic.
This virus poses significant stress and emotional challenges to us all. It raises the specter of both an overwhelmed medical system as well as increasing co-occurring emotional crisis and a collapse in adaptive coping, for many. Sales of alcohol went up 55 percent in the week of March 21 and were up over 400 percent for alcohol delivery services. Americans were in lock-down and many made poor choices. The link between stress and physical health and well-being is well documented and will be a factor as American’s find their way free from the grip of Covid-19.
“The human mind is automatically attracted to the worst possible case, often very inaccurately in what is called learned helplessness”
Whenever human beings are under stress they are going to utilize skills they have learned from other times when they felt under threat. Chronic stress has been shown to have negative effects on health including autoimmune functions, hypertension, inflammatory conditions like IBS, and pain syndromes. Many find it impossible to think about anything but the worst case scenario. Marty Seligman described the concept of “catastrophizing” that is an evolutionarily adaptive frame of mind, but it is usually unrealistically negative.” This leads to a condition known as learned helplessness. In another book, Dr. Seligman writes about learned optimism published in 1990. His cognitive strategies hold true today.
So many use the same coping mechanisms over and over, whether they are effective or not like drinking or gambling to let off steam. These things may help in the short term but can cause further health and social problems later on. They are not adaptive strategies. Stress is unavoidable and the best thing we can do is to understand its physical impact on us and adapt to it in healthy, adaptive ways. Stress raises the amount of cortisol and adrenaline in the body activating the fight-flight response. For many, that meant an uptick in the procurement of spirits in late March to help bring it down. Others think differently. Many began a routine of walking or running or cycling. Regular exercise contributes to reducing stress and when kept in perspective, is an adaptive response to the threat of coronavirus.
Many people in our hospital were afflicted with the virus or some other health concern and became immersed in loneliness and isolation that can lead to disconsolate sadness. It is hard not to be affected by this suffering. Most reviewed studies reported negative psychological effects including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger, according to Brooks, et.al. Lancet 2020. At Whittier, we had many cases of ICU delirium where patients became confused and frightened by healthcare providers wearing PPE including face shields, masks, and oxygen hoods. Many thought they were being kidnapped or that the staff were actually posing as astronauts. This made it hard to help them feel safe and to trust the core staff including doctors, nurses, and rehabilitation therapists.
We have had some very difficult cases including a man who found his wife on the floor without signs of life. He fell trying to get to her and both lay there for over 2 days. He was unable to attend her funeral because of his broken hip. We had another man who pushed us to be released from the hospital. He worried about his wife who needed him to assist in her care at home. She has Parkinson’s disease. He was discharged and died shortly after going home. His wife fell while getting ready for his funeral and is now in our hospital undergoing physical rehabilitation and receiving support from our psychology service. The table below is a list of observations from recent admissions:
- Anxiety – what will my family do while I am here?
- Deep felt sense of loneliness
- Depression – loss of support; loss of control
- Exacerbation of pre-existing conditions i.e. sleep disturbance, asthma, uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension
- Slower trajectory toward discharge
- Debility greater than one might anticipate to diagnosis
- Subtle triggers to prior trauma – changes in coping, regression, agitation, sleep and mood
What is left for us to do? Have a discussion about what it means to be vulnerable – talk about family members who have been sick with non-covid conditions like pneumonia or chronic heart disease, COPD, etc. It is important to be ready to work from home again such as when schools switched to remote learning this spring and when governors’ call for closing things down. Consider the return of college kids as campus dorms everywhere are likely to close this winter.
The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide. 500 million people were infected with the virus that lasted 2 years. The virus was said to have been spread by the movement of troops in WW I. The website Live Science reported that there may have been a Chinese link to the Spanish flu as well due to the use of migrant workers and their transportation in crowded containers leading to what we now call a super spread event. We know a lot more about this virus than we did in March 2020 when it first took hold but we need to understand the eradication will be a herculean task driven by science.
“The coronavirus has profound impact on the emotional stability of people around the world because of its unpredictability and lethality. It evokes fear, and uncertainty as it spreads unchecked. Later, the virus can serve to trigger long hidden memories in a way that can sabotage healthy human development leading to vague anxiety, physical symptoms, loss, and deep despair” said Michael Sefton, Ph.D. during a recent Veteran’s Day presentation. People must have resilient behaviors that foster “purpose in life, to help them survive and thrive” through the dark times now and ahead, according to police consulting psychologist Leo Polizoti, Ph.D. at Direct Decision Institute in Worcester, MA.
It has been frequently mentioned that exposure to death and uncivilized brutality has an impact on wellness and personal resilience. Not a surprise. Especially in these pages, I make an effort to point out that the cumulative impact of traumatic exposure slowly whittles away one’s capacity for mental health, empathy and emotional efficacy. “There is a relationship between the severity, frequency and range of adverse experiences, and the subsequent impact on mental health.” (Dillon, Johnstone, & Longden, 2012). The conundrum has always come down to just what constitutes a “traumatic” event in childhood? Sometimes there is no single identifiable event that a child brings forth that may later become a trigger of serious emotional instability later in adulthood.
The Covid-19 virus has the potential for creating traumatic events depending upon the degree of exposure and a child’s understanding of the narrative brought forth by parents and other trusted adults during the pandemic. “Over 30 percent of Americans know someone who has died or been infected by the virus. The fallout to mental health from the coronavirus is real. I see it in my own family as nerves become frayed 8 weeks on.” according to the blog post from May, 2020. Trauma informed therapy supports the model of early traumatic experience being the underpinning of many mental health outcomes we see later in life. The biopsychosocoial model identifies physical abuse, sexual abuse, exposure to violence, chronic substance abuse as the substantive reasons for many mental and physical illnesses years later. When we look in the rear view mirror at this virus we will see the litter of emotional wreckage that may leave its hooks in many people around the globe.
There is a relationship between the severity, frequency and range of adverse experiences, and the subsequent impact on mental health.(Dillon, Johnstone, & Longden, 2012).
“The more adverse events a person is exposed to in childhood, the greater the impact on physical and mental health and well-being, with poor outcomes including early death” (Anda, Butchart, Felitti, & Brown, 2010; Anda et al., 2006; Felitti et al., 1998). There was a time in my training that I collected data on childhood fire setting and the psychodynamics of pyromania. I saw 50 children in my fellowship year who came because of fire setting. Without a doubt, there was marked early instability in the childhood homes in these kids that likely germinated into fascination with fire play and perhaps more directly, physically aggressive behavior. Many of the children I assessed were suffering from early onset trauma.
Depending upon the age of onset using fire as an expression of internalized conflict suggests a serious emotional disorder in need of expert assessment and treatment. The interest in fire may appear normal but slowly interest foments in homes where a prevailing emotional vacuum permits – decreased emotional warmth, access to fire starting materials, an absent parent, and frequent domestic violence.
The inconsistent and unpredictable exposure to violence contributes to excessive and unpredictable behavior as children become adults. Often without direct knowledge of a specific trigger, trauma activates brain circuits that drive fear and emotional behavior including substance abuse, domestic violence, and assault. What is more, these absorb community resources as psychological needs grow.
The coronavirus has profound impact on the emotional stability of people around the world because of its unpredictability and lethality. It evokes fear, and uncertainty as it spreads unchecked. Later, the virus can serve to trigger long hidden memories in a way that can sabotage healthy human development leading to vague anxiety, physical symptoms, loss, and deep despair.
Scott D. Jones of Arlington, MA was a decorated paramedic who responded to a mass homicide in 2000 in which 7 people were shot in an episode of workplace violence. He would go on to kill his second wife and 2 children 14 years after repeated episodes of severe depression and suicidal behavior and domestic violence toward his first wife. These behaviors were the first red flags of an impending emotional breakdown and terminal rage. Paramedic Jones certainly had problems but the repeated exposure to trauma – especially the mass shooting, activated his fight-flight response intolerably and may have been one of the demons he faced in the end.Michael Sefton, Ph.D.
Trauma can be triggered by loss due to Coronavirus in two ways. First, by direct contact with a family member who is hospitalized and may have died. Nearly every person who contracted the virus had someone left behind that was worried about their health and eventual recovery. Many had family members who communicated with patient via text messaging and FaceTime – until the loved one could no longer do so. Families relied on the updating calls of first responder nurses, chaplains, social workers, and physicians.
Next, through secondary exposure to similar cases and media coverage that assails efforts at closure and engrains the narrative of fear, guilt and shame by reporting ever increasing case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths survivors are left feeling numb and unable to mourn. Funerals were deferred or could not be held at all as some jurisdictions required the cremation of the remains of coronavirus victims. This has a negative impact on survivor health and well-being often evoking a religious and moral crisis of faith. Survivors have enormous guilt and sadness not being with a loved one who died from the virus or waiting to go for medical at the onset of symptoms. They mourn to mourn and are left feeling numb at the lack of closure.
So whether it is early trauma associated with domestic violence or trauma from repeated exposure to work-related experiences, there is a resilience that resides within most people that guides the rise from being overwhelmed again and again to move forward with courage and hope and feelings of hardiness. These are learned responses to high stress events like a pandemic, but people who are positive thinkers, optimistic, physically fit and emotionally insightful rise up, controlling the lives they lead.
We are offering a zoom platform event entitled The Psychological Impact of the Cornavirus Pandemic: Common sense answers on November 11, 2020 at 5:30 EDT and again in December 10, 2020 at 7 PM. It is free and to be sent the zoom link contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Whittier Rehabiltation Hospital at 508-870-2222 in the U.S. If you plan on attending the 12/10/2020 session please drop me an email at: email@example.com
Michael Sefton, Ph.D.
The Corona virus has taken over 120,000 American lives since it began its tornadic viral defoliation of senior citizens and others with preexisting conditions in the Spring of 2020. The virus caught Americans unprepared. Everything has changed. The impact of the virus has been like a tsunami wave around the world whose point of origin is the giant industrial city of Wuhan, China. Only now are countries like Brazil being decimated and will soon top the United States in total cases and deaths. Countries who went into immediate lockdown were less effected like Norway, New Zealand, and Canada. The United States waited too long and the virus took hold.
States here in North America, like Georgia, Arizona, and California, who grew weary of the economic impact of the virus and put forth ambitious reopening plans are now seeing record numbers of cases for the first time. The rate of infection is now being felt among younger citizens without pre-existing infirmity.
Concerns about negative secondary outcomes of COVID-19 prevention efforts should not be taken to imply that these public health actions should not be taken,” wrote the CDC in one of its briefing statements. Secondary outcomes include the broad range of emotional responses to the virus including depression from loss of loved ones, sudden unemployment, increasing substance abuse, threat of homelessness, anger and existential anxiety from loss of control and loss of purpose in life. “However, implementation of supports should include a comprehensive approach that considers multiple U.S. public health priorities, including suicide prevention.”
The Psychological toll of pandemic is beginning to show after festering for 3 months. The loss of employment, fear of foreclosure, food shortages, price gouging, addiction, and family conflict each increase the bonifide stress associated with the disease and its impact on the human family. People are becoming rattled. The President understands this and wants to exploit the opportunity by holding a campaign event. Trump brushed off concerns about the virus ahead of his highly anticipated rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, because the number of cases there “is very miniscule”, despite the state’s surging infection of according to a report in the Boston Globe. Instead, the rally was miniscule and embarrassed the President.
Top physician and epidemiologist, Anthony Faucci has stated that given the unprecedented and unpredictable nature of Covid-19 that lessening of current social distancing protocols, the use of masks in public, and contact tracing are the best hope for keeping the number of new infections trending downward and to lessen the number of people who die from Covid-19. States who reopen for business without these same precautions are at risk for spikes in cases and more death. Since mid May we have heard from Dr. Faucci less and less as the White House has tried to imply that these concerns are unwarranted and there is “very little of the virus left”.
President Trump, himself something of a germophobe, has put the needs of the campaign before public health and safety for the sake of his raucous and fervent base. In doing so, he will create a campaign spike that will be measured by new cases and deaths in the next 3-6 weeks time. That is on him and the courts who failed to put limits on the event or cancel it all together in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday June 20. Since February, the president has not taken the pandemic with the kind of leadership that demonstrates his understanding of the virus and respect for those who have succumbed to the disease.
Meanwhile states like Georgia, Texas, California, and Florida are having thousands of new cases because governor’s of those states have failed to heed the warnings of Dr. Faucci and others. The sudden conflagration of new cases is not the second wave that we have been warned about. The jump in cases correlates with opening businesses without any adherence to protocols. See Tulsa, OK.
In Florida, the average age of new cases who are hospitalized has dropped to 37-years old. “Those thousands of new cases also signal that, in a week or two, some portion of those people will show up in the hospital, and, about a week after that, a number of them will be dead, even as clinicians have learned more about treating severe Covid-19” said the Boston Globe. For his part, albeit in a greatly reduced capacity, Dr Faucci predicts that a tidal wave of infections is coming unless we do what most medical experts agree starts with respect for social distance recommendations, sanitary hand hygiene, and mandatory quarantine for those who test positive for the virus or are feeling unwell.
We all know this by now, and it is hard to swallow unless you are among those people who claim to have super immune functioning and refuse orders to wear a mask in public? Sadly, many will become infected and go on to infect others, unwittingly, all the while they feel nothing and are emboldened by the President who insists the risk of getting the virus at a campaign event is miniscule. Perhaps some readers of this post or others like it do not believe the numbers and chalk it up to fake news.
The emotional impact of the virus has yet to reach its peak. But the racial unrest may be one indication that many are becoming unhinged including a small number of law enforcement officers who lack empathy and understanding of the human effects of stress on unconscious bias and veiled bigotry. Faucci is getting on the virus. Let us leave the prognosticating to the scientists who are watching the numbers and tracking those who are carrying the virus without symptoms, and may not know it yet.
The Coronavirus has brought to bear chaos and fear among Americans from coast to coast. I am unsure whether any of us expected the virus would grow and infect over 1 million Americans alone in 6 short weeks. The death toll at the time of this post is just under 80 thousand lives. Personally, my aunt and my mother were both infected with the virus at their living facility. Sadly, my aunt has died from the coronavirus but my mother, has been without symptoms, in spite of testing positive 2 weeks ago. Over 30 percent of Americans know someone who has died or been infected by the virus. The fallout to mental health is real. I see it in my own family as nerves become frayed 8 weeks on.
The virus’s threat to basic needs and personal security has eroded the trust in federal leadership. This is due to the lack of an integrated plan to develop a vaccination, provide testing and contact tracing, support unemployed workers, and reconcile still-rising numbers of Covid positive cases while at the same time as some states begin opening businesses. In doing so, potentially asymptomatic individuals may unknowingly carry the invisible killer into a restaurant, laundromat, or tattoo parlor – all deemed essential services as states like Georgia begin coming back on line. This is a fact, whether or not they meet federal government mandates for “opening up” including 2 weeks worth of reduced rates of infection, decreased death rates, and lowering hospital admissions due to Covid-19. Many epidemiologists believe that opening businesses too quickly will result in a rise in cases of the virus and an increased rate of death.
Now, the White House Task Force is finding itself in the crosshairs of the invisible and lethal disease as members of the White House staff are being diagnosed with Covid-19 and self-quarantined because of exposure to the virulent disease. Members of the inner circle have been tested and some have been diagnosed with the virus including members of the White House service staff and the Vice President’s personal secretary. In the west wing, there is chaos among the staff as to what precautions should be taken while potentially being exposed to the coronavirus. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been the face of the response to the virus is now in a voluntary quarantine as a result of the spread of the virus in the west wing among staff members of the White House. Three physicians have gone into voluntary quarantine as a result of coming into contact with the virus as protocols recommend.
Former President Barack Obama harshly criticized President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as an “absolute chaotic disaster” during a conversation with ex-members of his administration. Yahoo News May 9, 2020
Medical personnel across the country are on the front line and they are being recognized for their tireless bravery in the hot zones in American cities like New York, Boston, and New Orleans. The law enforcement and fire service have all shown their appreciation with 7 PM shows of support. This also includes members of newly graduated physicians who have been sent to the front lines of the virus in ICU’s and Covid-19 floors in America’s best hospitals. The stress of this is often overlooked. “Since the pandemic began, newly minted residents who normally wouldn’t take care of patients with severe respiratory illnesses, such as those training to be psychiatrists, podiatrists, or orthopedic surgeons, have been asked to volunteer to work in COVID-19 wards” across the country according to a report by Deanna Pan in the Boston Globe on May 9, 2020. These are teaching moments that have brought out the best in young physicians and the old seasoned veterans who supervise. But the cost has been great with increased rates of suicide since the shutdown began in March including those on the frontlines.
On April 27, Lorna Breen, a physician specialist in emergency medicine took her own life after being witness to dozens of patient deaths during the peak of the coronavirus and contracting the virus herself and surviving it. Dr. Breen was a professional and emergency service medical director of NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital and had no history of depression or mental health diagnoses. In the hours before her death her father, himself a physician could tell something was wrong.
On the night when the nation’s top virus spokesperson physician Anthony Fauci, M.D. went into voluntary quarantine, the president of the United States had a meeting of his senior staff and none of the members at the meeting were wearing personal protection, like masks. Physicians and epidemiologists are calling for social distancing and personal protection yet the White House resists and engages in ongoing updates and meetings without the use of masks or social distancing. With two White House staffers testing positive for the virus, including Mike Pence’s secretary Katie Miller, the president is making light of the protocols set forth by the CDC and the WHO. This inconsistency and disingenuous message is not lost on anyone.
Delayed actions at the top have resulted in confusion about what steps the U.S. Government and the individual states must take to reduce the impact of the viral outbreak. The U.S. has the highest number of Covid-19 cases and the highest number of deaths in the world. The streets of America are empty and businesses are shut down and many will never reopen. The unemployment rate is nearly 15 percent. This is the highest rate of unemployment since the great depression. People are worried and in conflict over medical information they are hearing and what they see in the White House increases that conflict.
“It’s a terrifying, solitary, dehumanizing death that these people go through, and it’s going to leave wounds in our society for a long time,” Tara Bylsma, 30, a second-year internal medicine resident at Boston University Medical Center in Boston Globe May 9, 2020
Working on the front lines with patients who are dying is horrific. This is especially painful when there is seemingly nothing that can be done to help them. First responders and frontline hospital workers are trained to provide emergency care. When their training is not effective than feelings of helplessness will grow. These feelings can be overwhelming. At the same time, the rule of law comes into question and there is growing suspicion that the virus is man-made or an overblown scam. People are pushing for release from social distancing and using the argument that their constitutional rights are being infringed upon by forcing them to remain in their homes. Some are becoming angry and out of control.
In late January, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a pubic health emergency because of the exponential growth of the virus in China and later in Italy and Spain. Trump has since denuded the WHO as being overpriced and undervalued as only he is capable of doing. Sadly, Americans were unprepared when it’s first case arrived in February and we were told not to worry the virus would soon disappear. But it has not gone away and the United States is in lock down as a result.
Human to human transmission of the disease was thought ‘not possible’. The pandemic was first publicized and forewarned by a physician in Wuhan, China who ultimately died from the virus. He had been arrested and warned by police against speaking publicly about the risk of the virus and threatened with sanctions.
Meanwhile, President Trump was publicly yammering about his trust in Chinese President Xi Jinping and the deals he was making to benefit the American economy. His focus was not on the growing fear of American workers but the vulnerable economy that President Trump needs to get himself reelected in 6 months. In the meantime, the virus has not vanished nor faded away with warmer weather but continues to claim over 1000 lives each day across the country. Now, with the coronavirus in the White House, the presidential spin over wearing masks and maintaining social distancing takes on new meaning.
How will the political narrative shift now that Trump and his team has been directly exposed to the virus and members of the Coronavirus Infectious Disease team have become quarantined leaving the president alone in the garden for his bite of the apple?