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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.