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Coping with the COVID-19 Pandemic: Psychological, Social and Behavioral Reactions

COVID-19 Research Area(s): Culture, Epidemiology & Public Health, Mental Health & Wellbeing, Social Impacts

Project Summary
We are examining psychological and social responses to COVID-19 with an online questionnaire completed weekly throughout the crisis. We examine a model of responses to COVID-19 based on our previous work on SARS and H1N1. As threat of disease increases, stress increases, but there are large individual differences in coping that have implications for health behaviors and mental health.

We are tracking how disease threat and stress are related to engaging in recommended behaviors, as well as other health related behaviors (e.g., alcohol use and exercise), and coping responses over time (e.g., denial). Preliminary findings from the initial wave of data collection support our findings with previous pandemic outbreaks. Coping via adaptive prosocial responses appears to be associated with increases in recommended health behaviors and better mental health outcomes, but when stress is coped with by denial and wishful thinking, increased threat has been found to be associated with maladaptive behaviors such as a failure to socially isolate.

Project Description
We are examining psychological, social, and behavioral responses to the COVID-19 pandemic with online questionnaires that participants complete weekly over the course of the crisis. We launched the online survey mid-March. Participants follow a link on our website to enroll, and once participants have completed the initial survey, e-mails are sent out weekly to assess their responses to the crisis over the past week using well validated and standardized measures. These measures have shown predictive validity in our work with previous pandemics (e.g., mental and physical health, health behaviors, stress, coping, psychological threat, demographics). Participants learn of the study via the sharing of links on our website by media, other health professionals’ websites, and members of the general public sharing the link on social media. We expect to continue the study with brief weekly follow-ups until the crisis ends. We are testing a model of psychological responses to COVID-19 that we have previously found support for in our work on SARS, West Nile Virus, and H1N1 using similar methods to those proposed here [e.g., King, Kamble, & DeLongis (2016) Coping with influenza A/H1N1 in India: Empathy is associated with increased vaccination and health precautions. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education.; Puterman, DeLongis, et al., (2009) Coping and health behaviors in times of health crises: Lessons from SARS and West Nile. Global Public Health, 4, 69-81; Lee-Baggley, DeLongis et al. (2004) Coping with the threat of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome: Role of threat appraisals and coping responses in health behaviors. Asian Journal of Social Psychology.] Our work with these prior outbreaks indicates that as threat of the pandemic increases, stress levels tend to increase, but that there are wide individual differences in coping responses that have important implications for health behaviors and well-being. We are examining how perceived threat of disease is associated with engagement in key recommended health behaviors (e.g., social distancing, hand washing), as well as the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on drug, alcohol use and exercise. In addition, we are tracking both maladaptive coping responses such as wishful thinking, denial, and rumination, and adaptive prosocial coping responses such as empathic responding. Findings from our work with previous pandemics indicate that we can expect that when participants cope with the threat of COVID-19 by engaging in adaptive coping, we will observe subsequent increases in recommended health behaviors.