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Man and woman talking to each other outside wearing face masks, socially distanced, with trees and sunlight in the background

How vaccines affect behaviour and mood

Chartered Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll explores the emotions vaccines make us feel, whether it's relief, hope or a feeling of invulnerability, and how being aware of these emotions can help keep us safe.

We may think of vaccines on a purely physiological level, and spend time reading about how they work and how effective they may be, but our psychology and behaviour also play important roles in managing a pandemic.

With this in mind, it can be helpful to consider how being vaccinated may affect our perceptions and mood, to ensure that we are aware of how these precursors to behaviour may affect us and so stay as safe as possible.

Vaccinations can trigger all sorts of emotions

I've had many people say that they felt excited, relieved and even a little tearful when they were offered an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine. These quite strong emotional responses are a clear result of all the worry, anxiety and fear that has been building up over the past year.

Like the pressure mounting before a cork pops, so too have many of our feelings been kept below the surface while we've remained calm and carried on during the pandemic. Now, with a solution on the horizon, these feelings are bubbling up: so it can be helpful to be mindful of and to regulate some of these emotions.

I too felt a sense of relief when I was offered the first dose of the vaccine in my role as a healthcare worker. The actual administration of the vaccine was an oddly emotional experience – the health centre in my local area was buzzing with a sense of community spirit.

But, as we know, the end of the pandemic has not yet arrived. Social distancing and other COVID guidelines remain, because we still don't know how effective the vaccine will be in terms of reducing the spread of the virus.

Also, it takes a number of weeks for immunity to develop, and a subsequent dose is necessary to provide a good level of protection against the severe consequences of the virus. Therefore, we must still keep to the rules for the time being, for our own good as well as that of others.

Behaviour still matters

But will everyone do this? It has been reported that a survey viewed by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) predicts that just under a third of people will loosen their adherence to the rules once they've had their jab, and more than 1 in 10 will stop following the COVID guidelines all together.

A queue of people 2 metres apart wearing masks against a concrete wall

Will everyone keep to the COVID guidelines once they've had their vaccination? A survey suggests not.

However, we must keep in mind that SAGE considers the worst-case scenarios, and for good reason. The vast majority of the British people do comply with the guidance they are given, both for themselves and the greater good.

We can see this objectively, as case numbers and hospitalisations dropped every time lockdown restrictions were put into place – therefore, we should give ourselves due credit and acknowledgement for the part we have all played in reducing infection rates.

There may be the odd few that see the vaccine as a magic bullet, but in my experience most people are sensible and understand that this is a process. Also, as new variants emerge, we do still need to pay attention to our behaviour while medical science attempts to keep pace with virus mutations.

Hope can help us moderate our behaviour

The good news is that we can turn to psychology to help us moderate potentially harmful actions such as mixing households or refusing to wear face coverings in public, as research shows that fostering hope for the future tempers risk-taking behaviour.

In studies that look at relative deprivation, or how we perceive our lot in life, researchers found that those who believed they had it worse than others were more likely to engage in unhelpful activities.

These 'maladaptive escape behaviours', including emotional eating, alcohol and substance misuse, comfort spending and gambling, as well as risky public behaviours, act as a temporary fix – a short-term way to distract ourselves from unpleasant feelings. But these fixes wear off very quickly and can have serious consequences.

Hope can prevent such behaviours as it gives us a roadmap for the future. The vaccine itself provides a kind of hope that we can harness, while also managing emotions and expectations.

Roadmap for staying healthy and hopeful

Taking all of the above into account, I suggest we follow a simple, staged approach to processing emotions, developing gratitude and nurturing hope. This will help to manage any urges to engage in risky behaviours while we navigate this third act of the pandemic:

  • Recognise and release your feelings, to prevent frustrations and fears turning into undesirable behaviour. Creative practice is a proactive way to achieve this and can be whatever you like – writing or painting, for example. By tangibly expressing our feelings through creativity on a regular basis we can bring about an awareness of our emotional experience, which offers a release.
  • Nudge your mind to see the positive by fostering a sense of gratitude. Observe three small aspects of your life that you are thankful for each day – these can be the tiniest of things such as nice cup of tea or amusing message from a friend. All too often we are swept away by global affairs, and so by refocusing on the minutiae, we can become grounded once again – the little things are the fabric of life, after all.
  • Then, to nurture hope and agency in our lives, keep a journal about one positive and one less pleasant event in your life every week. Think about why the good events will endure and pinpoint how they are linked to your actions. Next, explore how the more negative events are limited in their impact and how they will indeed pass, and let go of any self-blame or recrimination. This exercise helps us to connect the dots between our behaviours and outcomes, and helps prevent the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that drive risk-taking actions.

Dr Meg Arroll PhD CPsychol AFBPsS is a chartered psychologist, scientist and academic researcher with a specialist focus on health and stress, integrative medicine and wellbeing.

Find out more at Dr. Meg Arroll's website, or read more about Healthspan's health experts.

Always follow the Government's guidelines on self-isolation and social distancing – see gov.uk/coronavirus for more information and the latest updates.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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