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Fear around hugging, touching could be long-term consequence of COVID-19 pandemic, psychologists say

Janna Wiebe woke with a start recently, after dreaming her young son was surrounded by school friends who weren’t observing physical distancing.

She calls it a nightmare.

Wiebe’s family in Gretna — a southern Manitoba town about 100 kilometres from Winnipeg — have been practising the recommended distancing from others for the last month. They’ve gotten used to only being close to each other.

She thinks the public health directives and orders have gotten into her head.

“All I have wanted since this pandemic has started is for my son to be able to go back to kindergarten — to go back to school and finish his first year of school properly,” she said.

“Now I’m having a nightmare that he is going to school, and that’s obviously something deep down in my subconscious that finds that thought nerve-racking.”

Even Wiebe’s partner had a bad dream about a person being hugged by someone they didn’t know.

The Wiebes aren’t the only ones who are wary of touching others or getting too close. Psychology experts say the lingering effects of public health orders could have an impact on mental health long after those orders are lifted, and could increase phobias and obsessive reactions in those who already have anxiety problems.

“I think the fear, the anxiety, the concern, the paranoia is going to persist for quite some time,” said Bruce Bolster, an associate professor of psychology and the co-ordinator of the neuroscience program at the University of Winnipeg.

A sign at Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg on March 26, 2020, encourages visitors to practise social distancing. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

That’s because fear-related learning is persistent, he says. For example, if a person has a bad experience getting stuck in an elevator, that might trigger a lifelong fear of elevators — a fear that’s maintained by avoiding them altogether.

The same could be true of the pandemic, says Bolster.

“This pandemic will end, and the threat of contracting this disease from casual social contact will diminish drastically,” he said.

“But to the extent that people avoid social contact that’s now not only benign, but necessary to feel emotionally and personally connected with others, they will likely pay a price in emotional health and social adjustment.”

Hugging, handshaking will come back

Mental health issues triggered by isolation, job loss and fear of the unknown are common, experts say.

But for some, the ongoing fear of what Bolster calls the “invisible enemy” could lead to obsessive or phobic tendencies.

Danielle Rice, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at McGill University and an Ontario-based therapist, says some mental health conditions are, at least in part, triggered by specific events. A pandemic could be the sort of thing that pushes someone to the point of developing obsessive compulsive disorder or phobias.

“I think a pandemic is something quite unique and that will blur the lines for people trying to find the ‘normal’ amounts of time that we spend washing your hands or sanitizing things. I think that will potentially impact those mental health conditions,” Rice said.

“I hope that it’s something we have the mental health resources in place to handle.”

More widely, though, Rice thinks the public health directives made in light of the pandemic could shake up some social norms, at least in the short term.

Grocery stores are stepping up measures to keep shoppers and cashiers safe, including asking customers to practise social distancing, and even installing Plexiglas shields. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

“I think there will be definitely some hesitation for handshakes and hugs and these types of greetings that we’re quite used to,” Rice said.

“That being said, I think as time goes on, the reluctance is going to decrease. I think these types of greetings and formalities are part of our culture, they’re part of our societal norms.… I don’t think they’ll be going anywhere long-term.”

Wiebe says for people like her who have had to “unlearn” behaviours that seem natural — like visiting with friends, shaking hands and hugging — there will need to be another period of unlearning.

“We all envision the second this is over, we’ll all run out into the street and greet each other warmly and embrace and cheer,” she said.

“I think it’s going to be more complicated than that.”

She hopes there will be some positives that come out of the pandemic, though — and Rice and Bolster think there may be.

They hope people will internalize better hygiene and responses to viral outbreaks.

“I do think there are some lessons in this that we all need to learn around infections control,” said Bolster.

That includes good handwashing and hygiene, as well as “not going to work and infecting your co-workers when you have a cold or flu.”

If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there. Contact the Manitoba Suicide Prevention and Support Line toll-free at 1-877-435-7170 (1-877-HELP170) or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.

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