Mental Health

COVID-19 is blowing up my family group chat, where do I even begin

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covid-19
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

(Written by Alyssa Low & Ooi Huan Jie)

Entering the 17th day of the Movement Control Order, everyone seems to be a little more on edge than they were when this began. Time seems to be passing a lot slower and days are starting to blur into one unified mass. Not complaining, but I think it’s fair to say that, by now, most people seem to be feeling an overwhelming sense of boredom. The bright side? We’ve got 11 more days of this to go.

At least you still have the internet, and with telco companies giving us free data, it’s easy to stay connected. One thing though (we’re sure) lurks in the depths of your WhatsApp inbox – the family group chat. Not sure about yours, but ours ding constantly with panicked messages and COVID-19 related videos and just tonnes of – sometimes dubious – information. There are new warnings every day: ‘don’t order from food-delivery services, they’ll steal your food and you’ll get infected!’; ‘go out in the afternoon, hot sun kills the virus’; long videos accompanied with clickbaity text, ‘WATCH TILL THE END!’; pictures of shopping carts overflowing with Maggi, eggs, canned goods and (so much) toilet paper.

Why are they spreading this information? Do I correct them? How do I tell them to calm down? How do I tell them they don’t need 500 rolls of toilet paper?

Watching the paranoia and hysteria unfold is quite an experience and not knowing what to do is truly exasperating. I could mute the group but… there’s so much unnecessary panic and some of these behaviours are at the expense of more disadvantaged groups in society: stigmatisation of certain groups; people violating the MCO, putting vulnerable populations at risk.

The question then becomes: how do we even begin to help quell the panic or correct them, when ‘respect our elders’ often means ‘don’t challenge’? Navigating these situations is always a little tricky; one misstep and you’re reminded that ‘生嚿叉燒好過生你 !’ (giving birth to a char siew would be better than giving birth to you!). While that’s debatable at best, if you do want to do something to help ease the panic they might be feeling and direct that panic towards more beneficial behaviour, here are some things you can consider. These might not work for every family but, hopefully, it’ll give you a bit of a starting point.

Why are they doing this?

Many of the current reactions (anxiety, depression, anger, loneliness, panic-buying etc.), while sometimes frustrating, are normal given the situation we’re in. There’s a lot of uncertainty given that it’s a novel virus that we do not yet know how to treat. It’s natural to feel worried about the wellbeing of the self and other loved ones. With all that in mind, not everyone has the same capacity to respond calmly right now.

Mass sharing of information and panic-buying are a kind of herd behaviour; when people are stressed and overwhelmed, their reasoning is hampered and so, they look at what others are doing. If others are hoarding toilet paper, if the supermarket shelves are empty, then maybe this is the thing to be doing. Deciding and being able to do something also acts as a way for them to feel safe and to regain some control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation – even if that something is to hoard groceries or share 50 covid-related videos a day.

Also, they’re probably not spreading fake news purposefully; if they knew it was fake, they’d probably not share it either. That said, people are sometimes quite trusting of what they see or hear – even more so when the info is coming from other loved ones. Rumours now are also quite convincing, usually, with some truths in them. It doesn’t help that familiarity influences believability; the more we’re exposed to it, the more we start to believe it (the availability heuristic at work). With so much info to sort through, it’s easy for anyone to be overwhelmed and even easier for them to decide to ‘be safe rather than sorry’.

First steps: Empathise, acknowledge, and validate their efforts, thoughts, and feelings

With that in mind, if you notice their anxiety and behavior are starting to reach a fever pitch (this may look like excessive forwarding, irritability etc.), you may feel the need to step in. In doing so, there are some things that may help with effectively getting your message across.

  • Keep an open mind
    • Start with the assumption that they’re acting on good intentions, just that execution might not have been the greatest
  • Talk in private if you can
    • The goal is not to shame but to understand where they’re coming from, what they know and then, to correct any misinformation
    • Gently explain what you understand using language they’re comfortable with
  • Acknowledge and empathise
    • Both adults and children are more likely to consider different perspectives if the approach uses empathy and acknowledgement.
    • “It really is a stressful time right now so what you’re feeling right now makes sense, and I appreciate that you’ve been trying to keep us updated and safe”
    • “Hey, I doubt it’s your intention but I noticed that some of the things you’re sharing may cause some panic”
  • Offer to do go through the facts together
    • “I’m trying to find out more about it too, maybe we can look through it together?”
    • “I noticed you shared this, but I also saw this. Something seems a little weird. Could we try to get to the bottom of this together?”

Create space for discussion

Present facts slowly and raise questions instead of pointing fingers. Asking questions is less confrontational and could guide them to realising the importance of evaluating the entire article rather than focusing on sensationalist headlines. It may be hard to gauge where their understanding is at the moment, but a way to mediate that could be to offer to go through and make sense of the information together.

Guide them to the legit stuff

Suggest more reliable sources for them to get their info from, such as the Ministry of Health, UNICEF, or the World Health Organization. For updated numbers, OurWorldinData has beautiful visualisations of data relating to the coronavirus – it can be a little overwhelming, but going through it together should help with that.

What can they do instead? 

A large part of why people behave in this way in this situation is that they feel an overwhelming need to do something, but don’t exactly know what that something should be. Right now, it’s important to direct our focus and efforts to things that are within our control.

“We’re going through a period of time now where we’ve got to, as a country, pull together. Don’t get frightened. Don’t get intimidated. Use [that] energy to be able to confront it and do the kinds of things that will put an end to it,” – White House health advisor, Anthony Fauci 

Study after study has shown that helping others and contributing to society gives us a sense of purpose in life, and that’s something that we can use to direct our behaviour. For instance, instead of refreshing the news constantly, it might be better to spend some time engaging in behaviours that combat the virus and keep our society safe. As always, it’s always good to come up with some concrete and actionable suggestions, such as:

  • Practicing good hygiene behaviours (washing your hands, sanitizing often, other safety behaviour recommended by the MOH)
  • Social distancing
  • Actually following the MCO order and staying indoors
  • Connecting digitally to people who may feel more lonely at this time
  • Searching for ways to digitally support local businesses
  • Supporting organizations working to help frontliners and vulnerable populations

About the last two points, here are some organisations we’ve been looking at over the past week:

This list is not exhaustive and there are tonnes of other organizations and causes that can always use extra help. Go forth and look for causes that matter to you!

Working from home is a new challenge for most to balance work, family responsibilities, and rest. But, it’s also some extra time we get to spend with our families and also an opportunity for us to work on self development. Have a bookshelf full of books you’ve never had time to read? Family night ideas? Well, now’s a perfect time. Side note: here’s a recipe for the best banana bread muffins.

How to break it to them?

Now that we’ve got a list of productive projects and positive behaviours, how does one go about telling and distracting the family? There’ll be times where we want to shake them a little and point out, “Why are you doing that? Do this instead.” Unfortunately, psychological reactance is a thing and that could end up with them (and you) feeling even more stressed, anxious, and determined not to listen.

Here are some bases you might want to cover and some suggestions you can go about doing that.

  • Express your feelings
    • “This situation has got me feeling more anxious than usual”
    • “I feel so tired about this MCO”
    • “Covid-19 has got me really worried too!”
  • Express concern
    • “How’re things going over there?”
    • “How are you guys coping with the MCO?”
    • “Are you guys doing anything for self care?”
    • “How have you been looking after yourself these days?”
  • Share what you’re doing that’s helped you – maybe it’ll interest them too
    • “I used to keep refreshing the news but realised that made me even more stressed. Now, I take little breaks from the news and only check it during the afternoon.”
    • “There’s so much false rumours about the virus and it’s so difficult to tell what’s real from fake! Thankfully we have google and that makes it so much easier to verify”
    • “I’m filling my days up with things on my bucket list, like catching up on some shows and books.

Above all else : Reflect and be forgiving (to yourself and your family)

While these are some ways you can approach the idea of reassuring your family and correcting misinformation, it is crucial to take note of our own reactions in responding to them. All of it takes time, patience, and lots of acknowledgement and reassurance. Chances are, it’s going to be difficult for them to calm down and they may still continue to unintentionally share dubious things. This is where we’ve got to take time to reflect and to be okay with any unpleasant feelings they or you may have as well as the mistakes they or we may make.

Remove yourself when you need to

When you find yourself getting a little riled up, take a break from the panic; mute the group if you have to and take some time to clear your mind before returning. If your family members still refuse to listen or take your thoughts into consideration, do what you need to do for you. If possible, try to keep some space open for future conversation. Cheesy as it may be; gotta keep calm and carry on.

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Alyssa Low and Huan Jie
Alyssa Low is currently a research assistant with the Dept of Psychological Medicine at Universiti Malaya. She also works part-time at a specialty stationery store, Stickerrific, with all her favourite things - stationery, art, paper, and cats. Huan Jie is a clinical psychologist graduated from HELP University. He is currently practising in psychiatric clinic in Petaling Jaya.

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