COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, is currently threatening the world at large and has yet to stop spreading. Global health organizations have been tracking what populations and physical traits make individuals more susceptible to infection, with high-risk populations including the elderly, those with existing heart conditions and those with a chronic lung disease. As we care for our physical health, it is also crucial to consider what personality traits might cause individuals to develop mental health conditions due to the corona pandemic. Among other factors, individual personality traits have been shown to contribute to the development of certain mental health conditions, and as such should be looked into as at-risk markers for adverse, corona-related mental health reactions.
Identifying the mental health conditions most likely to occur due to the corona outbreak is the first step in determining who is more likely to develop mental health complications. For this reason, it is important to examine the relevant disorders and their correlating personality traits, so we can better understand the support each of us might need, at present and in the future.
A 2020 meta-analysis on health situations calling for quarantine has indicated that contending with a fast-spreading, dangerous viral infection can cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An earlier study found that symptoms of both PTSD and major depressive disorder (MDD) were more likely to occur. Additionally, an overwhelming number of reports, as well as research, from the present coronavirus health scare list anxiety as a major mental health reaction.
Anxiety: As expected, a public health crisis seems to initially cause anxiety, due to the immediate threat to the health of individuals and their loved ones, the instability that has been introduced into people’s lives, the sudden influx of vital information, and the looming financial ramifications that such a global shutdown could incur. Among the anxiety-based conditions presently being triggered is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and in particular cleanliness-themed OCD, which for many has kicked into overdrive under instructions to focus more on personal hygiene.
Depression: As individuals begin to cloister themselves in their homes, avoid social interaction and find themselves isolated with their personal worries for hours each day, depressive symptoms are more likely to set in. Loneliness, an increasing lack of hope, and a general melancholic perspective can all contribute to depression, as many individuals remain separated from their loved ones, support systems, and everyday sense of balance.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Finally, once the worst of the corona pandemic will be behind us and the world will start to regain a sense of stability, symptoms of PTSD will likely begin to appear. The remnants of a traumatic or deeply destabilizing occurrence has been shown to linger well beyond the actual event, and continue generations into the future.
At present, there are a number of proven treatments for anxiety-based conditions, such as social anxiety or OCD; depressive disorders such as MDD; and PTSD. Such treatments, which include psychotherapy, medication and non-invasive treatment options, have been shown to target adverse symptoms and help bring about a sense of relief.
As we work to handle the influx of these mental health conditions, it is imperative to look at the ways our different characteristics might influence our ability and vulnerability in the face of the current crisis.
Personality is defined as the multifaceted prism through which we understand and react to the world. It is shaped by genetic and environmental factors that determine the pattern of thoughts, feelings and behavior that arise within us. An individual’s personality is relatively stable, though still flexible, and allows us to grow from our experiences while maintaining a level of continuity.
One of the most widely accepted and established personality theories is the five-factor model (FFM), also known as the “Big Five” personality traits Model, defined by Costa and McCrae in 1985. Their theory posits there are five domains that characterize human personality across cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds. Each domain is built as a scale, ranging between two dichotomous extremes. Making up the acronym OCEAN, these scales are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
Openness to experience describes an individual’s willingness to explore their external surroundings, intellectual curiosity, imagination and emotional reactivity. It ranges between a natural curiosity, to a cautious and avoidant attitude toward life.
Openness to experience is generally not considered to be related to the anxiety or depression families. However, among individuals low on trust, openness has been found to protect against social anxiety. The correlation between the two is particularly relevant due to the strict isolation policies that have been put into effect, so that a high level of openness to experience could protect this sector against social anxiety.
Conscientiousness is defined by an individual’s diligence, self-discipline and forethought. It ranges between a goal-oriented, hard-working, dependable and conformist position, to a more spontaneous, laid-back and even anti-social approach.
A high level of conscientiousness has been shown to be related to tenacity in the face of anxiety-related stressors. Specifically, high levels of conscientiousness are negatively correlated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), due to this dimension’s relation to hard work and reliability. This ties low levels of conscientiousness to OCD, and as such can characterize individuals whose pre-existing cleanliness OCD has been triggered over calls to expend more energy on sanitizing and personal hygiene.
A low level of conscientiousness has also been shown to indirectly relate to depressive disorders, by causing the individual to experience failures in different life arenas, such as academically or professionally. This suggests that those with already lowered levels of self-efficacy, or a negative self-image, are particularly vulnerable to experiencing the current situation as hopeless and never-ending. Low conscientiousness has also been shown to predict the development of PTSD symptoms following a traumatic or highly stressful event.
Extraversion refers to how outgoing an individual is. A high level of extraversion is defined by friendliness, a talkative nature and high energy. A low level of extraversion, also known as introversion, is defined by a more reserved and solitary nature.
High levels of extraversion indicate a stronger resistance to social anxiety. This suggests that extraverted people are less likely to develop social anxiety when they do come in contact with other individuals, during necessary excursions. Additionally, extraverts could experience increased levels of stress due to isolation policies separating them off from their loved ones and systems of support.
On the other side of this spectrum, low levels of extraversion (or introversion) have been shown to partially account for the appearance of social phobias. This stands to reason, as the current implementation of self-isolation as a protective measure could validate existing beliefs that social interaction poses a threat to their well-being. Introversion also indicates a vulnerability to developing PTSD following a traumatic event.
Agreeableness consists of characteristics that define an individual’s approach to the needs of others, such as empathy, kindness and cooperation. The agreeableness scale ranges from a warm and accommodating personality, to selfishness and a tendency toward manipulation.
A high level of agreeableness has been found to protect against social anxiety, which is considered to be on the rise due to warnings to avoid social gatherings for fear of contracting the coronavirus.
Neuroticism is made up of personality aspects that are sensitive to stressors and anxiety. These include fear, anger, envy, loneliness, depressed mood, frustration from delayed gratification and loneliness. Low neuroticism defines individuals who are resilient in the face of adversity, and are not easily shaken.
High levels of neuroticism mark an increased vulnerability to depression and anxiety-based disorders, both of which have been shown to increase as a result of the coronavirus and the precautions put in place due to the pandemic.
An individual’s level of neuroticism has also been shown to predict the development of PTSD, so that those with low levels of neuroticism will be less likely to develop PTSD symptoms once the most stressful stage of the corona scare is over.
Be it due to the current health crisis, or because of a continued difficulty you have lived with for some time, turning to sources of support can provide a sense of understanding, compassion and community when you need it most.
The following mental health advocacy groups have available mental health resources for coping with the coronavirus outbreak: