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Durham University

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Our research response to the Covid-19 pandemic

We conduct boundary-breaking research that improves lives across the world. Here’s how we’re applying that research to help people combat the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and help chart the route to recovery.

Featured News

The deadly hour

(26 March 2020)

Aarron Toal from our Business School explores the impact of the UK Prime Minister’s daily announcement on our wellbeing.

Every day like clockwork, Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the UK, holds a televised press conference from Downing Street, flanked by chief medical advisors, scientific advisors or other members of his ministerial team, to provide much needed information on how his government is tackling the outbreak of Covid-19. Included within this update are the mortality figures: the number of people who have died after contracting the virus. It is a daily routine that spreads news of isolation, further restriction, and death, along with the realisation that the number of fatalities is increasing day by day.

Tea-time anticipatory anxiety

This daily routine of announcing the Covid-19 updates at 5pm does more than just its intent of providing information to the nation; it is unintentionally increasing anticipatory anxiety – that is the fear or dread experienced before an event, and those negative predictions we make about it. As the clock ticks towards 5pm, we begin a process of anticipating more bad news, our adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol flooding our bodies with hormones, and our fight or flight response kicks in.

The evolutionary significance of anxiety is relevant in order to understand and deal with it. Anxiety is an adaptive function that prepares an organism to deal with danger, usually by activating the fear circuitry within the brain. Increased anxiety serves as the basic purpose to increase vigilance of the potential threats within our external environment that could impact on our survival, but also encourages the individual to undertake proactive behaviours to eliminate these threats.This is tricky at present, given that for the majority of us under lockdown, our behaviours are being restricted, limiting exactly how we can deal with it within the four walls of our home.

Anxiety can also suppress a behaviour within humans, because as we anticipate the bad news, we refrain from other behaviours that might offer solace. Studies have indicated that anxiety is fundamentally a protective instinct to prevent the organism from engaging in harmful behaviour, and functions both consciously and unconsciously. Inadvertently, those instinctual responses to protect us (i.e. the need to constantly access news to ensure we are up-to-date with any threats so that we’re ready to respond), might actually further harming us.

That is what is happening to us at teatime every night. We are developing a daily routine of fight or flight simply by consuming media, and conveniently we’re told the exact time to expect it. This cycle of anticipating bad news, fight or flight responses building up throughout the day changing our hormone levels, receiving bad news, the comedown, then repeating itself the next day must be broken. Anticipatory anxiety is the fear or dread before an event

In our current environment, how behaviour manifests itself to deal with these anticipated feared events can result in both rational and irrational decisions. Fundamentally, we need to be aware of when our anxiety is causing us to act rationally or forcing us to make rather irrational decisions to reduce the emotion of fear.

Outsmart your instinct

Take control of your positive emotions to interrupt the anticipation, convert negative predictions brighter ones using hope or better still, consume your news in a different way and limit how long you spend watching/reading the news – those daily updates are important, but you should not schedule your life around them.

No doubt the bulletins will be repeated! Forgo your constant need for updates and access the news when YOU have time, not succumb to the feeling for needing to be constantly updated. It would be impossible to meet this expectation anyway, given how quickly news is developing right now. Perhaps it may help to recognise that the proactive behaviours we need to take to reduce our anxiety are to actually reduce our daily intake of news, and not listen to our instinct for more.

Sleep is key, which can be tricky given that our current daily routines are disrupted. Sleep deprivation boosts anticipatory anxiety, exciting those areas within the brain that contribute to excessive worrying. Unburden yourself from this daily routine, switch off your constant need for news and updates and restrict your consumption of it.

Lastly, acknowledge that you’re only human. Experiencing anxiety is a fundamental adaptive feeling that is a result of evolution to deal with the threats our ancestors once faced in their own environment to ensure their survival. They became anxious so you don’t have to.

Find out more

  • This is an opinion piece on how the consumption of media during the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown may increase the feelings of anxiety. If you require support for anxiety, please seek professional help - NHS Every Mind Matters provides details on how to access support in the UK
  • Aaron Toal is a PhD candidate at our Business School
  • Interested in studying at our Business School? Take a look at our different study programmes here