Most people believe that anxiety is detrimental to the body and mind. However, a new study showed that the coronavirus anxiety might be functional, wherein people could be more conscious than before.
The relationship between coronavirus anxiety and health-conscious behavior was determined by researchers at Nottingham Trent University, University of Winchester, University of Derby, and Georgia State University. Their findings suggested that being anxious due to COVID-19 might positively impact the behavior of individuals, in which they would likely be more health-conscious. The positive correlation of anxiety to the behavior might represent the survival instinct in people. Results were published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.
Behavioral Changes Induced by the Pandemic
SARS-CoV-2, the virus of COVID-19, is a highly contagious pathogen that can be spread through respiratory droplets emitted by patients and carriers. Similar to influenza, the virus can cause respiratory symptoms and health complications. But the novel coronavirus is unrecognized by the human body, making it more dangerous than the flu. Without a cure, specified treatment, or vaccine, people are forced to stay very alert to avoid catching the disease.
According to Statista, a German portal for statistics, Americans expressed the changes in their behavior caused by the pandemic in a survey. Many reported frequent handwashing and the frequent use of hand sanitizers to protect themselves from an unseen enemy. Some also reported dedicating more of their time to praying while others decided to avoid restaurants more often. In the survey by the University of Southern California, from March 10 to 12, 2020, out of 2,436 respondents, 85% said they washed their hands and used hand sanitizers more frequently. About 61% reported their engagement with social distancing rules, 50% said they prayed more, and 22% confirmed their stockpile of food and water, but only 7% said they wore a face mask.
Within a few months, the importance of social distancing reached the transportation sector. Since the world could not wait for a vaccine to be developed, some countries eased lockdowns in select cities to restart the economy. In the said sectors, the modified consumer behavior brought back a vintage way of traveling: bicycling. The classic vehicle offered many edges, such as social distancing, being environmental-friendly, and health benefits, compared to public transit. In the estimates of The NPD Group, as of March 2020, the year-over-year increase in sales of leisure bikes was 121%. It was followed by an 85% year-over-year sales increase in electric bikes, 66% in commuter and fitness bikes, and 59% in children's bikes. There was also an increase of 20% in bike repairs and other services.
COVID-19 Anxiety Might Be Functional
In a recent study, a group of researchers investigated if anxiety due to COVID-19 might be functional in communities. They analyzed data to determine if the anxiety could motivate people to comply with health protocols that combat the spread of COVID-19. Among the several variables included in this research, only one was deemed a predictor of behavioral change in people: the worry over COVID-19. As such, the worry over the disease pushed people to maintain social distancing and wash their hands regularly.
"It is of interest that the measures of fear and anxiety symptoms were stronger predictors than moral and political orientation, all of which explained small to no variance, potentially suggesting more emotional (rather than sociopolitical) influences on compliant behavior. There was also no notable decline in quality of life in relation to behavior change. However, fear of COVID-19 was related to decreased physical and environmental wellbeing," said Craig A. Harper, first author of the study and psychologist at Nottingham Trent University.
In the study, researchers recruited a large international community sample comprised of 324 individuals. Participants were instructed to complete questionnaires that could tell their recent behavioral changes, particularly the ones influenced by the pandemic. Several points in the questionnaires meant various indicators, including the self-perceived risk of contracting the disease, fear of the virus itself, moral foundations, and political orientation. The political orientation was scaled from extreme liberal to extreme conservative. Specific behaviors aligned to health protocols like social distancing and handwashing were included as well.
Results from analyzed responses unveiled that a relationship does exist between anxiety, fear, and behavioral change. These three promoted changes in behavior to avert COVID-19. The positive influence was not affected by any political orientation. Regardless of differences in politics and leadership, the viewpoint of participants to the pandemic was the same. The anxiety became a functional element that triggered their survival instinct in the midst of this pandemic.
Normally, fear is a negative feeling that renders a person helpless, placing them at the mercy of the stressor. This is an example of pure fear wherein the ability of the person to react is removed instantly. However, COVID-19 did not induce pure fear based on the scales represented by the responses. The fear centered around anxiety induced by either an inexact or distant stimuli or stressor. Because the stimuli are a perceived threat, their ability to respond was retained and allowed their mind to start the fight-or-flight response. This awakened the sleeping survival instinct and forced them to be extra cautious, especially in the possible modes of disease transmission.
Dr. Jamie D. Aten, founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, explained in the US-based magazine Psychology Today that functional anxiety works similarly to the fear of fire. When a child fears fire, they are unlikely to play intentionally in the fire pit in fear to be harmed. As such, fear helps them develop behaviors that can protect them from a source of harm or pain. People who fear COVID-19 will likely avoid places where people gather and likely to maintain distance from others in public.
But Dr. Aten said that functional anxiety does not mean functional fear as presented by the researchers. Fear in its purest form can paralyze the will of a person until they recover from the shock, while anxiety senses a perceived threat and prepares a potential retaliation. The preparatory reaction from anxiety signals the will to survive, regardless of how strong the threat is.
Even though the study showed that anxiety can be functional in major crises, people should be wary that fear turned into a weapon can be dangerous. If a person is exposed to intense fear and succumbs to it, they will see everyone as a threat and may harm others unintentionally. So, individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions must be guided by a professional to prevent fear from conquering them.