Angst and Anger: Why does the COVID-19 pandemic make us so upset?

COVID-19 doesn’t just make people physically sick. It may also be harmful to emotional, mental and interpersonal well-being.

By Bobby Cheon

Recent reports in The Straits Times show a spike in family violence and a surge in mental health issues since the circuit breaker kicked in on 7 April this year. A police statement on 14 May showed a 22 percent increase in family violence-related offences from 7 April to 6 May as compared to before the circuit breaker period, and an online survey of 1,000 people in Singapore conducted by market research company Ipsos over the period of 24 April to 4 May indicated that one in four respondents are not in good mental health.

Interestingly, the survey also showed that those who deemed themselves as having declining mental health exist across the population regardless of their work situation. In other words, even if an individual has the fortune of remaining healthy and financially stable during this period, he/she could still be vulnerable to stress, anxiety and interpersonal tension and conflict. While the circuit breaker and social distancing regulations have proven effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19, the measures put in place could also contribute to psychological and interpersonal risks that extend beyond the obvious health and economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Social isolation and the need for personal space
One major psychosocial complaint about the circuit breaker is the extended periods of social isolation and loneliness it imposes. Belonging and social connection are fundamental human needs. Like other fundamental needs such as food and safety, the deprivation of meaningful social connections with others can contribute to stress, anxiety, frustration, and hostility. Yet for some, social challenges of the circuit breaker may be more complicated than just isolation. Those who live with others (e.g. roommates, partners, families, etc.), may experience a combination of social isolation as well as an elevated need for personal time and space.

Our usual routines and activities like going to school, working, running errands and pursuing leisure activities, not only provide structure and interactions with others, but also opportunities for independence, autonomy and personal growth/reflection – other important psychological needs. In this regard, psychological risks may be especially great for people restricted to homes where they perceive a lack of privacy or personal space, juggle intense household demands such as caring for young children while also fulfilling work requirements, or are exposed to abuse or hostility at home.

Intolerance and conflict in the community
Since the implementation of the circuit breaker, there have been numerous reports of acts of belligerence and aggression in the community – especially towards those seeking to monitor and enforce social distancing measures. Also troubling are inflammatory comments and social media posts blaming ethnic minorities and foreign workers for the spread of COVID-19 in Singapore. Social psychology has demonstrated that prejudice and discrimination are partially rooted in concerns about disease and contagion. Likewise, increased risks of disease may promote more rigid black-and-white moral beliefs about what is right/wrong or good/evil.

One psychological risk that emerges from these simmering concerns about contagion during the current pandemic is increased intolerance and prejudice towards those in our communities who are perceived to have values and practices that differ from our own. This could occur in the form of increased resentment and stereotyping towards some groups as being irresponsible, uncooperative, and skirting proper precautions to reduce infection.

Another way that intolerance may emerge is in the form of moralising behaviour – this refers to the tendency to criticise the perceived faults of others (e.g. being outdoors for non-essential reasons, “panic buying”, going to the store with other family members, etc.) with a superior or condescending attitude. These risks may contribute to stress and unhappiness while undermining the sense of community and solidarity that is especially needed during this period of prolonged social distancing.


Creating structure and setting boundaries
While taking a day or two off from work/school seems like a luxury in normal times, an extended period without typical school, work and leisure activities may be demotivating and discouraging. Reintroducing structure or a regular routine to our daily activities during the circuit breaker could help to address some of these disruptions. This involves approaches like a daily schedule that a family or household can agree to that could be useful for coordinating common space and time with other members of the household, which in turn reduces the odds of potential conflicts and misunderstandings. For households with children, this could also help set clear expectations and boundaries to children about when activities related to learning, play, and caregivers’ other responsibilities (e.g. work duties) will occur.

Exercising understanding and compassion
Due to psychological tension and strain caused by the pandemic and circuit breaker measures, we need to exercise extra patience, understanding and compassion towards others – both at home and in our communities. This is especially the case when encountering behaviour that offends our sense of proper conduct during the circuit breaker. When encountering such instances, we should approach them with courtesy and support rather than as an opportunity to correct another person’s ignorance or irresponsibility. This type of social vigilantism can be harmful and counterproductive. A polite reminder followed by a thanks may be more effective at encouraging adherence to recommended social distancing precautions.

One approach for enhancing patience and tolerance is engaging in situationalism. This is the practice of considering external circumstances that could explain someone’s seemingly irresponsible behaviour rather than reducing the act to a judgement about the individual’s personality or character (e.g. They’re just stupid, lazy, ignorant, greedy, etc). Case in point: We would be much more appreciative and receptive to the advice of someone who politely reminded us that we cut in front of him in a queue (by accident of course), compared to someone who wagged their finger at us and implied that we were being selfish or ignorant.  

Seeking ways to support vulnerable members of our community
Performing even small acts of kindness for those who are most adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic has benefits not only for others, but also for ourselves. Stress, anxiety and frustration during the circuit breaker may be rooted in a compromised sense of purpose, meaning and control caused by upheavals to our usual lifestyles. Donations, contributions of essential supplies and joining initiatives to support vulnerable members of our community may have dual advantages of providing valuable relief to others and restoring our own sense of meaning and social connection during a period of social isolation.

Collective threats, such as this pandemic could also be a valuable opportunity for building resilience and solidarity through virtuous cycles. Encouraging people to engage in small favours or acts of kindness, particularly towards vulnerable groups (e.g. migrant workers, neglected elderly, etc.), can instil an initial feeling of responsibility for the group. Over time, this concern for the group’s welfare can eventually grow by stimulating further acts of kindness. Visit SGUnited to find out how you can lend a helping hand.


The COVID-19 situation is a tough time for many, so don’t hesitate to reach out if you are experiencing a slump in your emotional or psychological well-being.

National Care Hotline (1800 202 6868)

Mental well-being

Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service 

Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline (6389 2222)

Samaritans of Singapore (1800 221 4444)

Silver Ribbon Singapore (6385 3714)

Marital and parenting issues

Community Psychology Hub’s Online Counselling platform

Violence or abuse

Big Love Child Protection Specialist Centre (6445 0400)

HEART @ Fei Yue Child Protection Specialist Centre (6819 9170)

PAVE Integrated Services for Individual and Family Protection (6555 0390)

Project StART (6476 1482)

TRANS SAFE Centre (6449 9088)

Elderly services

Agency for Integrated Care Hotline (1800 650 6060)


TOUCHline [Counselling] (1800 377 2252)

Dr Bobby Cheon's research investigates the psychological and behavioural processes that contribute to social disparities in obesity and diet-related chronic diseases. As an experimental social psychologist, Dr Cheon also conducts research pertaining to social cohesion, cooperation and resilience in response to perceived threats to one’s group.