UBC health psychologists launch global research project to study the psychological impact of COVID-19

Dr. Anita DeLongis and Dr. Nancy Sin want to know how people are coping with the Coronavirus disease pandemic. Image by Tumisu from Pixabay.

The COVID-19 outbreak has impacted all people in Canada and globally. Around the world, health officials are asking people to social distance and avoid crowds and large gatherings to slow the spread of the virus at a critical time. This series of events is unprecedented and our social landscape has dramatically changed.

UBC health psychologists Dr. Anita DeLongis and Dr. Nancy Sin are teaming up to launch a new study to explore the effects Coronavirus has on our mental and physical health. Through the study, the researchers will collect information on peoples’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviours related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Anita DeLongis

Dr. DeLongis, who has researched the psychological reactions to emerging pandemics—including SARS, West Nile virus, and H1N1—is interested in peoples’ psychological and social reactions to the COVID-19 outbreak.


Nancy Sin

Dr. Sin studies how daily positive events act as protective factors for stress and health. She is interested in how positive experiences may buffer people during an outbreak of this magnitude.

This research collaboration will address both of their research interests while providing new insight into how people cope during an emerging pandemic.

In a Q&A, Dr. DeLongis and Dr. Sin discuss their research—and we learn how people can take part in their study, Coping with the COVID-19 Outbreak.

What is the goal of this study?

AD: Our goal is to track people’s changing psychological reactions to COVID-19. We want to follow people across time to try to understand their fears and anxieties about the outbreak. We want to know why some people engage in the CDC recommended health behaviours, like hand washing, while other people do not. And, we hope to identify the psychological and social factors that promote better coping and adjustment during this crisis.

How does the study work?

NS: Anyone in the world can sign up for this study! People are asked to complete an online questionnaire about their attitudes and behaviours related to COVID-19, and we encourage people to continue to fill out brief weekly follow-up surveys throughout the course of the outbreak. In addition, we are very interested in the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on people’s daily lives. Participants in Canada and the US have the option of enrolling in our daily diary sub-study, which involves brief daily surveys for one week about their feelings, health, and activities.

What are you hoping to learn?

AD: In our past studies of psychological reactions to infectious diseases, we only had the opportunity to study people at one point in time. This has limited our ability to understand the natural history of the infectious disease as it unfolds over time in the community. It’s like having a snapshot or still photograph when what we need is a moving picture of how people’s reactions and ways of coping change. We want to understand the factors that are responsible for those changes. How can people successfully manage their fear and anxiety in situations like this?  What can they do to protect their loved ones and their communities? We are hoping to engage multiple members of households in this study, so that we can look at how they are able to support each other through these stressful times.

What do we know about our coping and health behaviours in times of global health crises?

AD: We know there is a lot of fear and anxiety, and that people need to find a way to manage these fears. When we feel threatened by something like a novel virus, we try to find ways to feel in control. There are a range of ways of coping with emerging infectious diseases, with some people engaging in the CDC recommended health behaviours, like hand washing, while other people manage the threat by engaging in behaviours that are unhelpful, and that can even be damaging at a community or societal level. For example, in our study of reactions to SARS, we found that some people focused their coping around avoiding those of Asian descent, thinking they could avoid the virus that way. Not surprisingly, we found that the more people felt threatened by a virus, the more they tended to try to cope with it. But if that feeling of being threatened was accompanied by an effort to engage in empathic responding, then people tended to do more of the CDC recommended health behaviours like hand washing and getting a vaccine, and less of the kinds of responses that can be damaging to their communities, such as the current hoarding we are witnessing in response to COVID-19.

What are the positive actions that can emerge from a public health crisis?

NS: We naturally want to connect with one another when in crisis. The need to keep social distance has led to creative ways for people to support one another. Italians singing from their windows and balconies is a great example of our inclination to find or create moments of joy in the midst of stress. Many people have formed online groups within their local communities to share valuable information and to offer their help. Volunteers and neighbours have mobilized to ensure that people in their communities who are socially isolated or vulnerable are receiving food and supplies. These newly-formed social resources will likely continue to enrich our communities even after this outbreak is over. We are interested in whether these positive social and psychological experiences will help people cope better with the stress of the outbreak.

How can people take part in this research?

NS: After participants complete the initial survey, they have the option of completing short follow-up questions to track their experiences of the outbreak over time. The surveys are available in English. We have a hardworking team of translators who are translating the materials to Chinese. This will allow us to collect data from a broader sample and to examine how people of different cultures are coping with the outbreak.

To learn more about this study and to sign up, visit our website: blogs.ubc.ca/coronavirus

Coping with the COVID-19 Outbreak Study 

Principal Investigators:

Anita DeLongis, PhD
Professor of Psychology
Director of the Centre for Health and Coping Studies
Department of Psychology, The University of British Columbia

Nancy Sin, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychology
Director of the UPLIFT Health Lab
Department of Psychology, The University of British Columbia

Study Coordinator:

Talia Morstead
Department of Psychology, The University of British Columbia