Do you have the blues? USC experts offer advice for coping during the COVID-19 pandemic

March 30, 2020

COVID-19 is the ultimate disruptor, reshaping people’s work, family and finances. No one knows how long it will last. No one knows who’s contagious. So many issues at once can cause emotional and psychological instability, affecting careers and relationships. USC experts understand the problem and share expertise to help people navigate the dislocation.

Contact: Gary Polakovic (323) 527-7770 or

Anxiety, fear are common symptoms during isolation

Lawrence Palinkas, professor of social work, anthropology and preventive medicine at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

“We are all making decisions now we don’t normally have to make. What we’re living through now is very stressful, and most people are not prepared for this,” Palinkas said. “Some are better equipped to cope than others. Some people will gain self-confidence and others will experience symptoms severe enough to warrant seeking professional help.”

He added:

  • Isolation experiences of astronauts, prisoners and polar expeditions offer insight for housebound people now.
  • The two biggest stressors during coronavirus outbreak are: social distancing and shelter in place measures plus uncertainty over where the virus strikes next.
  • Isolation means loss of physical, material and emotional support from loved ones, causing depression, anxiety and sleep problems.
  • During confinement, tensions and potential for conflict grows, so people confined together need safe spaces and separation to get along.
  • As a coping strategy, reactions to the stressors are likely to be projected onto government authorities responsible for containing the pandemic.

Palinkas is an expert on living and working in extreme environments, the psychological effects of disasters and the mental health effects of climate change.



Disrupted schedules break patterns, slow productivity

Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology at the USC Marshall School of Business.

“The routines built up over time are gone, so we all have to make new decisions about how to live now. Everything we do requires a decision, takes more energy and feels uncertain,” Wood said.

She added:

  • Disease outbreak upsets many things in a person’s schedule and life.
  • Broken habits reduce the stability and focus normally found in daily patterns.
  • People in such circumstances expend more cognitive and emotional energy on tasks once governed by habit.
  • As a result, people function more slowly, their productivity slips and stress increases.
  • Despite fragmentation, some people will find new ways to do things better— a hidden benefit.

Wood is an expert in behavioral change, habit formation, healthy lifestyles and habits.



Too much news consumption is unhealthy right now

Sheila Teresa Murphy, associate professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“It is vital to keep the true prevalence of the coronavirus in perspective,” Murphy said. “The vast majority of people will only ever experience coronavirus through the news media— few of us will actually contract the virus. So while the 24/7 media coverage may make it seem like the disease is omnipresent, we need to remember that it isn’t omnipresent in our lives. Research shows that our perceptions of the frequency of negative events, like contracting the virus, are heavily influenced by what we see and read in the news.”

She added:

  • Mental health care during a disease outbreak should include moderate news consumption; don’t binge-watch TV news.
  • Consume news judiciously from reputable journalism organizations or directly from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
  • Consider the source when consuming social media accounts of the virus; the content is not regulated and can include conspiracies and conjecture. “All news is not equal,” Murphy said.
  • Seek positive stories in books, TV and movies.
  • Do something you enjoy every day.

Murphy is an expert in how emotion and cognition shape beliefs, the persuasive effects of stories or narratives, and health communication.