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The Psychology of Adhering to COVID Restrictions

By Dr Lynda Shaw, neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist.

Being under Covid-19 related social restrictions for most of the year, now going back into national lockdown with infection rates spiralling out of control again, the long-term reality of Covid-19 is a frightening and unknown prospect. There is in addition a lot of confusion and restriction fatigue, but putting aside any political frustrations, why do we struggle to adhere to the guidelines and rules and what can we do to help?

Lockdown is impacting our mental health

  1. The long-term reality… Whilst there have been periods in which restrictions were eased, our freedoms have been curtailed in a more permanent than originally thought way, leaving many of us feeling overwhelmed and disheartened. Most difficult of all is not knowing what is going to happen next and when this unprecedented time will be behind us. For now, living in the present and knowing that this isn’t forever may be the mindset that will help many of us get through.

  2. Not naturally compliant… Unlike other societies around the world where they take their leader’s word as law, we are more likely to openly question our politicians. At the beginning of lockdown, adherence to restrictions amongst the Brits was very high, but increasing frustration and feelings of defeat of those who have been adhering to the rules means they too may start taking increased risks.

  3. Lack of trust… Trust is essential in difficult times, but trust is at an all-time low. Brits don’t trust that their jobs, their health or that of their families are safe. There is also a lack of trust in the leaders making the decisions that are affecting all our futures.  If the trust isn’t there when we are being told to do something, then the rules are less likely to be adhered to.  Honesty, transparency, and being authentic, timely and decisive are key.

  4. Economic pressures… are practical barriers to adherence to rules. You are more likely to take risks if you are struggling with money and have a sense of personal unfairness.

  5. Weighing up the cost. When deciding to embark on any major health treatment, we need a reason to believe the treatment is helpful even if the side effects are unpleasant or reduce quality of life or we feel anxious about it. We have to know the benefits outweigh risks. In the case of Covid-19 there is a split between focusing on public health versus the effect on the economy and other areas of physical and mental health. Focusing on the benefits rather than the side effects will help.

  6. Confusion. Using the same analogy, equally many of us are confused about when and how much of the treatment is required. Because Covid-19 is a new disease we still lack knowledge and fake news, changing opinions and confusion means compliance will naturally be lower.   Good clear communication about what is expected and why is essential.  We need to fully understand the rationale to agree to comply.

  7. It won’t happen to me – Those of us who believe we are unlikely to be at risk of Covid-19 are less likely to comply with regulations although we are more likely to adhere to rules if we think it will affect us or a loved one. Avoid statistic overload as it can be exhausting.

  8. Personal action – If you believe your personal action will have an impact then you are more likely to comply. The slogan “Stay at home. Protect the NHS.  Save lives.” was effective at the start of the lockdown because it was clear and asked for action to be taken be each individual. Building a sense of unity is important as is understanding why this is personal to each of us.

  9. It is a very divisive time…with Covid-19. Brexit, the US election and George Floyd’s murder amongst just a few enormous issues we currently face, which means that agreement to follow guidelines are at risk. By being aware and respectful and listening well and putting others first we can get through this time with greater ease.

  10. Young Adults...feel both thoroughly fed up and are naturally inclined to put their own needs first, but as a generation they are extremely compassionate so we need to stop blaming them and focus on showing them why they are so important and how they can help.


Dr Lynda Shaw

The Author: Dr Lynda Shaw: