The Psychological Impact of Pandemic: The best and worst of human behavior

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.

ca-times.brightspotcdn

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”

Martin Seligman

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.

Michael Sefton

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.

 

Covid-19 pandemic: No more important time for resilience

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.

Coronavirus. Ise.ac.uk

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: jswiderski@whittierhealth.com 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: msefton@whittierhealth.com

Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

Resilence and management of high stress situations

 The likelihood of becoming involved in an on-the-job shooting in one’s career is generally quite low across law enforcement officers in the US and Canada. However, there is a high degree of likelihood of almost daily encounters with high stress calls involving intimate partner violence, substance abuse, children at risk, unbearable human suffering and death.  I recall being involved in a search for a middle age male who did not return home after a night of drinking.  His route typically brought him across an abandoned rail road bridge.  As you might guess he did not make it across the bridge on that cold night instead falling off and drowning. He was found partially submerged and caught on some tree branches visible only by his L.L. Bean jacket which he had bought for those cold walks back from the neighborhood watering hole.  He was known to most of the police officers – two of whom were charged with going out into the river and retrieving his remains.  The body had been in the water about 48 hours.  It was not something I had seen before. I stood by for the retrieval and was involved in the notification.  My first of many.
These kinds of calls stay with you.  Especially early in one’s career.  The response of the family to losing their 50-year old father was especially difficult as he had young children from his second wife.  But I know officers and EMS first responders who have had one
images 2
Boston Police Officers react to Marathon bombing  ABC TV – photo credit
experience after another just like this and worse. A colleague described rolling up a driveway to an open garage and bearing witness to the home owner hanging from a ceiling joist. Suicide. Imagine the psychic imprinting officers experienced responding to recent mass shootings in Las Vegas or to a small church in rural Texas where so many people are killed or maimed and to be unable to stop the bad guy before it all happened. It happens every day it seems.
Here in Boston, 3 people were killed over 300 people were badly injured after two homemade bombs were set off during the Boston Marathon setting the stage for a complete shutdown of the city while area police officers searched for the suspects.  MIT University Police Officer Sean Collier was killed by the bombers while seated in his patrol vehicle on duty 3 days after the bombing.  Within hours a firefight ensued in Watertown, MA as the bombers were found in a hijacked SUV.  The brave officers from Watertown, MA, Boston Police, MBTA Transit Police, and Harvard University PD fought it out for 8 minutes with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan who was killed in the gun battle and run over by his brother. MBTA officer Richard Donohue was shot during the gunfight nearly losing his life. After a year of rehabilitation he returned to duty and was promoted to sergeant but ultimately could not recover from his wounds and retired in the line of duty. It took extra days and over 1000 police officers to locate the second bomber cowering in the covered boat of a Watertown resident. His image was published in the Boston Herald depicted with the snipers red dot on his forehead.  Citizens applauded law enforcement as they left Watertown on that night.
To survive these incidents one needs to have resilience also known as the psychological resources to process the experience with all of its ugliness and to know that you did what was needed with the training and experience you bring to the job every day.
By using alcohol to cope instead of resilient thinking one often develops other problems and this can lead ultimately to suicide. Alcohol is often related to suicidal behavior.” according to Leo Polizoti, Ph.D at the Direct Decision Institute in Massachusetts.  
After a stressful event, your body and mind must return to its baseline calm and ready state so that the officer may again activate and serve in whatever capacity is required without the baggage of the calls gone by.  As this “baggage” builds unfettered the likelihood of a decline in officer job performance grows sometimes exponentially.  There should be opportunity and on-going training to process the images in order to put them away and restore emotional equilibrium.  In some department realistic training includes use of simuntions where officers actually shoot their weapons at active shooters during training exercises.  The weapons are full sized handguns fitted with special projectiles that do not cause lethal injuries.  All training is conducted with head and face protection.  Many departments are building resilience training into their recruit academies – no only building physical strength but emotional wellness too.  “Current training teaches officers about biological awareness (bio-awareness) since psychological and physical reactions in the body arise from biological responses to the environment. Mental and physical states don’t happen independently and both must be addressed in reality-based training” Anderson, et. al., 2017.
“When a person encounters a threatening situation, they experience a surge of natural chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals allow the body to respond quickly. When this biological threat response is moderate, it enhances performance through more accurate vision, hearing, motor control, and response time. However, when the threat response is severe, the response can negatively affect performance by creating distortions in thinking, vision and hearing, and by increasing motor control problems, which can result in slower reaction times.” Anderson, et. al., 2017
Police in Massachusetts and throughout America are faced with the worst of all human experience.  Arguably, everything from unattended death, domestic violence, child abuse, and a fatal motor vehicle crash may show up on the call board of any dispatcher on any day or night as I posted in May, 2015. In the case of traumatic events – officer safety demands CISD and in the long run physical health and well-being are the underpinnings of a resilient professional who will be there over and again –  when called upon for those once in a lifetime calls that most of us will never have to answer (Sefton, 2015). “Psychological benefits include reducing distress, enhancing confidence in abilities and recognizing psychological responses that need the attention of a mental health professional” Anderson, et. al., 2017.  When necessary police officers undergo critical incident debriefing and peer support. Some benefit has been demonstrated using biofeedback to reduce the trending autonomic arousal through a paced breathing protocol to ameliorate the sympathetic-parasympathetic mismatch that has well described negative impact on physical health, emotional embitterment, and job satisfaction (Sefton, 2017).
“The primary goal of all modalities of biofeedback including physiologic modalities and neurofeedback is to restore the body to its “normal” state of homeostasis.  The process promotes mindfulness and paced breathing to gradually lower respiratory drive, reduce heart rate and blood pressure, and enhance other abnormal physiological readings such as skin conductance, abnormal finger temperature, and elevated electromyography.  It takes practice and understanding of its value.” Sefton Blog post 2017
Ultimately law enforcement and all first responders must be afforded support along with training to adapt to situations most human beings would never choose to confront and do so in a manner that instills personal dignity,  integrity, and continued professionalism.

Polizoti, L. (2017) Psychological Resilience: From Surviving to Thriving in a Law
Enforcement Career. Direct Decision Institute presentation.
Judith Andersen, Ph.D., Harri Gustafsberg, M.A., Peter Collins, M.D., Senior Cst. Steve Poplawski, Bsc., Emma King, M.A., Performing under stress: Evidence-based training for police resilience. RCMP Gazette Magazine Vol. 79, No. 1.
Sefton, M. (2015) Critical Incident Debriefing: The cumulative effects of stress. Blog post: https://msefton.wordpress.com/topics/dv-and-trauma/police-service/critical-incident-debriefing-the-cumulative-effects-of-stress/ Taken 12-30-17.
Sefton, M (2017) Biofeedback: Teaching the body to return to a proper homeostasis. Blog post: concussionmanagement.wordpress.com https://wordpress.com/post/concussionassessment.wordpress.com/3682, taken 12-30-2017