Psychologists study impacts of COVID-19

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been a watershed event for the world. It has brought drastic changes to all aspects of people’s lives, some temporary, some permanent. A new study, launched by UBC health psychologists Anita DeLongis and Nancy Sin, aims to provide some insights on the impacts of COVID-19 on people’s mental and physical health as well as how people cope and change during a pandemic.

The study was launched on March 18, the day after British Columbia declared a public health emergency, according to Sin. More than 5,000 people have participated in the online survey that is still ongoing.

“So far 85% of the participants are from BC. The surveys have been translated into French, Chinese and Farsi, and we would like to hear more diverse voices and experience from different people,” Sin says, “We are getting a lot of information on what people are doing to keep themselves and their family safe, how they evaluate their risks, and how they are coping, etc.”

Sin explains one aspect of the study that she is really passionate about is a daily diary where the participants will tell in their own words what is going on in their day for one week, such as if they are going through any negative or positive emotions and experiences.

Some preliminary findings

Nancy Sin, health psychologist at the University of British Columbia. | Photo courtesy of Nancy Sin

Without a doubt COVID-19 has created a lot of stress for people, says Sin. However, people are also reporting a lot of positive experiences than what would be expected, such as high rates of helping behaviours.

“We read about those hoarding behaviours, but there is also a lot of sharing and helping going on in a crisis. What is really happening, at least in our sample, is that people are really concerned about their family and their neighbours. They are socially engaged remotely and doing a lot to help themselves and others to cope with it,” she adds.

The initial findings also show significant variability in people’s risk perceptions and their associated behaviour changes, according to Sin.

“In Canada, people might feel that it is a problem that is affecting other parts of the world but not themselves directly,” Sin explains. “If people know someone in their own social circle who is impacted, if it reaches our schools and workplaces and social networks, then people will take it a lot more seriously.”

There is, though, a psychological factor that differentiates people’s behaviours, which is empathic responding says Sin.

“People who have more empathy are more likely to practice social distancing, hand-washing and disinfecting, even if they don’t think their own risk is high because they feel it is a social responsibility and they care about other people’s wellbeing,” she explains.

The good thing is that empathy can be taught according to Sin, adding that this pandemic also reveals that there is still a lot of disparities in our society that need to be addressed, as vulnerable groups such older adults, people with low incomes and people with limited social supports or financial resources tend to be the worst-hit demographics in society.

Coping and adapting

Most believe that even after we overcome this outbreak, the long term social and economic impacts will still be felt for a long time, as many people have lost their jobs and struggled in ways that they have never before.

“We know that stress has a really strong influence on all aspects of our health. The prolonged nature of stress will have some long-lasting impacts. We might see higher rates of chronic health conditions,” Sin says.

As a health psychologist and a professor, Sin advises people to try to maintain some kind of structure in their daily lives, even if they are no longer working or going out, to keep up with a daily rhythm and stay connected.

“It is also a time when people can build some resilience, we can try to spend the time to learn something new and, if we do have the luxury of time, to devote some of our resources and energy to help other people,” Sin says.

To learn more about the study and participate, please go to