LU scholars design self-assessment test for public to tackle emotional stress during coronavirus epidemic

17 Feb 2020

The recent coronavirus outbreak does not just affect citizens’ physical health. Many people are concerned not only about being infected, but also about shortages of surgical masks, hygiene products and even food, causing them to search frantically for supplies. The long-term harm caused by these negative emotional outbursts may well be more severe than the virus itself. Psychologists and researchers from Lingnan University are giving citizens tips on how to protect themselves against the disease and build up resilience and stay positive so as to fight the epidemic with sufficient psychological capital.


Prof Siu Oi-ling, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Chair Professor of Applied Psychology at Lingnan University and Director of the Wofoo Joseph Lee Consulting and Counselling Psychology Research Centre, explains that physical health and mental wellbeing are closely interconnected. Immoderate negative emotions may affect people’s decisions and actions in implementing effective disease-prevention measures, and panic often induces irrational behaviours such as blind conformity and superstition. Therefore the long-term effects of negative emotions on psychological health may be even more severe than the virus itself. On the other hand, having strong psychological capital can greatly benefit physical and mental wellbeing.


According to Prof Siu, “psychological capital” refers to the four factors necessary in dealing with adversity and challenges, namely self-efficacy, hope, optimism and resilience. In the present epidemic situation, “self-efficacy” refers to the belief that we can counteract the coronavirus; “hope” refers to the determination to achieve disease-prevention goals; “optimism” refers to the expectation that better times will come soon, and “resilience” refers to the ability to recover quickly from adversity.


Of these four factors, Prof Siu believes that resilience is crucial during times of adversity and that this ability to adapt to difficult conditions and recover or bounce back is not only a psychological quality, but also a factor related to our body’s immune system.


A research team led by Prof Siu conducted a study in 2009 where they interviewed 773 healthcare staff from Hong Kong and Mainland China face-to-face and through questionnaires. The results showed that medical staff who scored highly for resilience in the questionnaire also had higher levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA) in their immune system, which made them less likely to fall sick during the course of epidemic prevention. 


As for how to improve resilience, Prof Siu says “We can try to confront these hardships head on. When appropriate, we should challenge our existing beliefs and reduce any cognitive distortions or ‘thinking traps’. For example, don’t view this epidemic as the end of the world. We should expand our views and look for evidence to support rumours instead of blindly believing them or passing them on without consideration. Don’t let the epidemic control your emotions. In times of especially high stress, maintain confidence in yourself, make suitable adjustments and do something relaxing, like taking a break from any news about the epidemic and doing some housework, or listen to music instead. One of our recent research studies also found that having support from loved ones is one way to help build resilience. Therefore it is important to care for and encourage one another, and increase empathy and trust between family and friends.”


Prof Siu’s research team made a list of several statements that reflect characteristics of resilience. This can be used as a psychological test:


  1. I am confident that I can overcome present or future adversity and solve any problems or dilemmas in my path.
  2. My ability to face adversity is great.
  3. I can stay calm even when facing immense pressure.
  4. I never feel anxious in a stressful environment.
  5. I can confront difficult situations positively.


Each statement is rated on a scale of 1-6, with 1 being “extremely unlike me” and 6 being “extremely like me”. After giving a score for each statement according to your own personal experience, find the average score by adding up the five items and dividing by five. The final score is evaluated on a scale of 1-6, with higher scores indicating higher resilience. 


How to increase resilience during the current situation:


Correct attitude

Application to the current epidemic situation

Confront hardships and adversity

Read accurate information about the epidemic and learn to understand about viral transmission.

Reduce cognitive distortions or “thinking traps”

Do not panic. Just stay calm.

Expand your views and look for clear evidence to support rumours and hearsay

If you receive any updates about the epidemic, try to verify them through official reports or credible media sources.

Keep a moderately relaxed attitude

When news about the epidemic affects your emotions negatively, take a break and do something else, such as listening to music or housework.

Seek help and support from family and friends

Talk to family and friends about your concerns (for instance looking for surgical masks) and help and encourage each other. It is also good to exchange information and even solve one another’s difficulties.