A Psychologist Explains Your Bizarre Coronavirus Mood Swings

How you can try to hack your way out of a bad-mood day.
12 May 2020, 6:35am
illustration of someone on a swing inside the human brain
Illustration: Sander Ettema 

This article was originally published on VICE Netherlands.

Before I begin, let's make this clear: the coronavirus pandemic is a broadly terrible situation. People are dying, losing jobs and struggling to pay rent, plus the pubs have been closed for weeks and COVID-19 might very well be the biggest cockblock of all time.

Still, in an attempt to polish this turd, we can acknowledge that the virus has created a sense of solidarity. I'm not talking about the kind of solidarity that makes famous people sing songs together, but about the simple realisation that we're all battling the same demon – and riding the same erratic rollercoaster of emotions in the process. Some days, we want to stay in bed all day with our head under the covers, while the next we're optimistic – philosophising that things could be worse. We are, in short, all experiencing intense mood swings.

But where do these mood wings come from, and can we do something about them? And if you're living with someone who's fine one moment and very down the next, should you try to make them feel better? I called Jean-Pierre van de Ven, psychologist and author of the book It Should Be Drastically Different, about our ability to change ourselves.

VICE: I've been experiencing extreme mood swings lately. Can you relate?
Jean-Pierre van de Ven: I've definitely noticed that I have a shorter temper these days. I’m impatient with people on the street when they don’t step aside, or when they don’t keep [the Dutch-mandated] 1.5-metre distance. I also find myself thinking that I’m really done with this whole corona situation.

So what's causing my bad moods?
Firstly, it’s the news – all of that bad news that's thrown at us all the time. Secondly, it’s all becoming very real now. We have somehow all internalised this idea of supposed invulnerability. We tend to think that bad things happen mostly to other people, far away from here. Now, we are being confronted with the fact that our family and friends could also be affected, which makes us realise we are far more vulnerable than we ever realised.

But there are also days I think I’m doing pretty OK.
That’s because there are two powers present. We’ve already discussed the first one, that gloomy feeling. The other one is resilience – we all have it – which is being influenced by different circumstances. The question is: which circumstances have a positive impact on you?

Right. Because I want to know if I can do anything about these mood swings.
You need to determine for yourself how you can boost your resilience. That’s different for everyone. You need to see if you can mentalise the situation, whether you can draw links between your moods and events happening in your life. Not everyone is equally good at that. Imagine having been in a fight with your partner in the morning and then getting irrationally annoyed with a colleague in the afternoon. You might not immediately realise that those two fights are related to one another, but it’s good to become aware of it afterwards.

Find out precisely which factors have an influence on your good moods. It could be consuming a smaller amount of news or making a phone call. You might get inspired by a book, or by something you’ve watched on Netflix. It’s good to take the time to figure that out. Five minutes a day to focus on which factors were positive and negative influences on your mental state, to see if there is a pattern.

Are there any common patterns?
It’s likely that many people will come to the same conclusions: keeping in touch with other people. Having sex is often a mood booster. Thankfulness is another one. If people are showing their gratitude to you, or you show your thankfulness to other people, that often has a positive impact.

Another important factor is openness. If you dare to show yourself exactly the way you are to someone – including your fears and insecurities and doubts about these times – then that’s a form of trust, which often gives you trust in return. Again, this stimulates your resilience.

You might create a list of things that you’re proud of. Certain personality traits, or things you’ve done, or compliments you’ve received from other people. It doesn’t matter when these things happened to you. Set up the list, put it away for a bit, and then when you pick it up again there will be some things on it that will make you smile. This could be a daily routine.

What if my partner is going through a particularly bad day – should I try to cheer them up, or let it go?
No, just let it go. Many people tend to forget this, but you’re not responsible for your partner. You can offer your partner support, but you should be very careful with that. Many people assume they should offer their partners solutions to all of their problems. But that somehow implies that you ultimately know better than the other person.

Your partner might not be up for that at all. It makes more sense to just be there and offer support. If he or she wants to talk about things or wants to express how hard things are, then you should provide them with that space. And sometimes offering support simply means giving them a certain look, putting your arm around their shoulder or giving them a kiss.

We've been inside for a few weeks, and things will likely stay this way for a while. Do you think we'll get used to this situation?
I don’t think so. Our brains are focused on making connections with other people. Many of those connections have disappeared for now, and that’s not something you get used to.

That’s not the most uplifting message. Do you think there’s anything good coming from this crisis?
I think that what we’re going through right now will have a huge impact on everyone involved, somewhat comparable to experiencing a war. It will amplify our sense of solidarity and we will look back and think fondly of that resiliency. Very serious measures were taken very quickly. That’s something we were all responsible for. We’ve all managed to change our behaviour. We’ll mostly remember the fact that we were able to do this together.