Pandemic as a Trauma: Basic Needs Frustration, Learned Helplessness Emergence, Development of Addictive Behavior and Hypochondria

The article is devoted to the analysis of pandemic COVID-19 conditions, which can be considered extreme and traumatic for many reasons. Using methods of theoretical analysis, the authors developed a theoretical investigation model which demonstrates how the pandemic situation becomes traumatic and by what mechanisms an increase in maladaptive behaviors occurs in various groups of people. These conditions affect all levels of the need-motivational sphere of personality, forming a state of basic needs frustration. For people characterized with specific predispositions, the pandemic situation causes basic needs, frustration, learned helplessness, cases of addictive behavior, and signs of hypochondriac attitude to health. The novelty and practical significance of the study are in designing the investigation model that can be applied as an algorithm for mass psychological assistance to various categories of people during a pandemic.

Keywords. Trauma, learned helplessness, basic needs, addictive behavior, hypochondriac attitude to the state of somatic health, COVID-19, pandemic.


Although humanity has repeatedly experienced various cataclysms, the COVID-19 pandemic became a shocking surprise for the world, which appeared not to be ready for it. Existing knowledge about the development of pandemics, various infectious diseases, and some familiarity with medical science with the causative agent of the pandemic was not enough to prevent the crisis. The world community has introduced unprecedented measures for prevention and precautions against the new coronavirus infection spread, and the World Health Organization has described the pandemic as a crisis. 

The world and all mankind have undergone and continue to undergo such profound changes that it is very early to talk about ready answers to the issue. The situation has generated great research interest in various psychological aspects and consequences of this phenomenon (Ostrovskiy & Ivanova, 2020). The following question remains one of the most important:

why has the COVID-19 pandemic become so traumatic for the whole world and affected everyone?

In the pre-pandemic period, the way of life organization had several specific features, among which we can underline external locus of control, external determination, and conditional stability of reality. The sudden, spontaneous, and uncontrolled changes are not in any comparison with the circumstances with which a person has been forced to face COVID-19, both at the somatic and mental health levels. Taking into account that traditional ways of coping with stress (by a person, as a self-organizing system, representing biopsychosocial unity) are not working now, and the problem has a global level, the scale of the tragedy simply cannot be overestimated. To analyze the situation deeply, it is important to study the major compounds of the "extremity" of the pandemic conditions. It becomes necessary to develop and substantiate a theoretical investigation model that includes both the process of transition from an objective pandemic situation into a traumatic situation and the basic mechanisms of such a transition (frustration of basic needs and the emergence of the learned helplessness state); and thereby justify the manifesting effects of maladaptive behavior in a wider range of people of different ages, namely: increased hypochondriac type of response to disease, increased various forms of addictive behavior during a pandemic.

Methodological Background: In psychological studies, the extreme situation is characterized by sudden emergence, the uncertainty of prognosis, the risk to life, and the disorganization of familiar behaviours. In a pandemic situation that has erupted at the global level, the observing conditions can be considered extreme. Such conditions, according to several authors (Alekhin & Dubinina, 2020), include life threats and related threats, virtual threats, informational stress, excessive load, the need for rapid mobilization of psychological and psychophysical resources, significant psychoemotional stress and deprivation, the inability to influence the situation fully, uncertainty of prognosis, the lack of ready-made decision schemes and socio-economic stress. Subjectively, these conditions are experienced as "excessive" or even "unbearable."

A concept that is closely related to extremity is mental trauma. Summarizing the various characteristics of a traumatic event, the following features can be distinguished:

  • Event extremity.
  • An external event leads to the destruction of the life-world model or the main personal structure at this stage.
  • The inability of a person to build a new lifeworld or a new personal structure.
  • Lack of resources to rebuild the new life-world model.
  • Not being able to cope and even survive It.
  • Loss of process experience dynamics, there is a stuck at some point and stagnation of the state (Magomed-Eminov, 2014; Vasilyuk, 1984).

According to many of these signs, with a certain predisposition of the person, the situation of a pandemic and self-isolation can act as traumatic. Such a diverse range of experiences and emotions does not pass without a trace, forming stable views, attitudes to the situation, and behavior. Not everyone can control their emotional manifestations and psychotic reactions in such conditions because anxiety about their health, fear of getting sick, and becoming helpless are normal human reactions. Many contemporary researchers agree that the pandemic has become a global stress-forming factor for various categories of people worldwide (Anjum et al., 2020; Chen et al., 2020; Rasskazova et al., 2020). 

COVID-19 is another type of stress - its destructive form - distress, the collision that leads to a person's destruction or death. The only hope is the possibility of a reasonable, rational, systemic, technological approach to the pandemic problem, in which joint efforts of specialists of different professional fields will be able to change the polarity of coronavirus infection SARS-Cov-2 effects from "-" into "+": not baseless optimism, but the persistent search for a solution to a new problem in a new reality rapidly developing under the influence of a new coronavirus infection SARS-Cov-2.

The pandemic's extremity (complexity) affected the grounds for each personality: needs, values, and attitudes. First, this concerns the fact that everyone has experienced the frustration of basic human needs. One of the natural needs that every individual has is protection and a sense of security. Against the background of such a large-scale and unpredictable event as a pandemic, the psychoemotional tension of people is growing, the panic state is embraced, and the reaction to such stimuli can be completely different.

The mechanisms of psychological protection are manifested in a variety of ways. This can be directly related to the depth and multidimensional nature of the object itself (Pilyugina, 2020). Frustration refers to the impossibility of realizing or meeting a need. As a rule, frustration is a short-term emotional state that leads to the search and resolution of the conflict that a person experiences. However, this does not relieve the severity of the experience. In other words, a person perceives this obstacle as really existing. Not only the fact of frustration itself becomes traumatic, but also the duration of the frustration.

Frustration can be one of the components of the trigger mechanism for the occurrence of hypochondriacal disorder. Feelings of anxiety for one's health, and fear of missing something important overlapping with the psycho-trauma situation of a pandemic, can stimulate the development of a hypochondriac type of attitude to the disease when there is an imaginary belief in the presence of any pathology. It is more difficult to experience a state of frustration if it affects personality-based needs. Basic needs here mean needs; the dissatisfaction experienced by man as a crisis or even collapse affects the value and meaning foundations of life, making the frustration of basic needs a mechanism of mental trauma.

If frustration concerns personality-based needs and is experienced by the individual for a long time, various destructive phenomena arise that are associated with pathology, illness, or disruption of adaptation. One of these manifestations is the hypochondriac type of response to the disease. People with such a reaction seek treatment and, at the same time, do not believe in the success of the treatment prescribed by the doctor. Constantly concentrates on unpleasant, painful experiences and feelings and go into unnecessary details, describing their well-being (Chamkina et al., 2019).

Our observations reveal that in a state that can be noted as the general psychoemotional background of the population, there are clear signs of a psychological phenomenon, which was defined as a state of learned helplessness by American psychotherapist, founder of the New Positive Psychology Martin Seligman in 1970s (Seligman, 1975). Learned helplessness arises from long-term out-of-control events that cannot be overcome by any effort.

The degree of satisfaction or frustration of basic needs in ontogenesis (as a positive or negative experience of the individual) can predefine the degree of constructiveness or destructiveness of behavioral manifestations in a crisis. Following Magomed- Eminov (2009), we can agree that the whole variety of reactions to a crisis or extreme situation can be represented on a continuum: negative reactions (in the limit - disorder) - neutral reactions - positive reactions (overcoming, development, and growth).

A person experiences the state of need for frustration in a crisis, and the richness of reactions to frustration can also be described in this continuum. Research interest is currently caused not only by a negative pole but also by a positive one. However, in real requests for psychological assistance in pandemic conditions, negative pole reactions still prevail, so some of them are in the prism of our investigation: the state of learned helplessness, addictive behavior, and hypochondriac type attitude toward the disease and health.

Purpose, Object, and Subject of Study 

The pandemic conditions as factors leading to experiencing psychological trauma were defined as the object of the study. The subjects of the study are as follows: The frustration of basic needs during the pandemic, learned helplessness emergence, hypochondriac type of reaction to disease, and addictive behavior as consequences of this specific traumatic experience. The study aims to substantiate the theoretical model of considering a pandemic as a traumatic situation that frustrates a person's basic needs, which leads to the emergence of learned helplessness, as well as destructive behaviours such as addictive behavior and a hypochondriac type of reaction to the disease. Within the study, the following hypothesis was formulated: the frustration of basic needs in pandemic conditions affects the emergence of the learned helplessness state and the formation of addictive behavior and a hypochondriac type of attitude to the disease and health. 

Research Methods

The following methods were used to build the theoretical model: theoretical and methodological analysis, modelling, abstraction, concretization, generalization, and interpretation of scientific data.

Discussion and Results

A number of researchers, considering the quarantine situation, cite the following factors that affect a person's mental state: the duration of quarantine, fear of infection, frustration and boredom, insufficient provision (products, clothing, medical services, household services, etc.), inadequate information (Fedosenko, 2020). All these factors affect the person in conditions of self-isolation as well. Under conditions of self-insulation or quarantine, all levels of needs described in Maslow's pyramid (Maslow, 2011) are frustrating. The first level (physiological needs) was frustrated by such factors as the prohibition of leaving home without extreme need, including for the purchase of food, and medicines, the possibility of visiting organizations and institutions that provide life, and even simple "household" issues (for example, when older people could not leave their homes and had to rely on the help of volunteers).

The second level (the need for safety) is frustrated both by the danger of infection due to the high contagiously and the rapid spread of infection and by the fact that the disease "entered" the homes of the closest social environment, posing a threat to life (constant reports on the disease and death, news highways on various media), even the house ceased to be safe. The third level of needs was frustrated by the ban on social contact, including elderly parents or relatives. The fourth level (the need for recognition and respect) was frustrated by such events as the transition to new ways of professional activity in remote work and incompetence in the tools necessary for it. The fifth, highest level in Maslow's concept (the need for self-actualization) was frustrated by the impossibility of self-realization in conditions of self-isolation using the usual methods.

Children of pre-school age who are not at direct high risk of COVID-19 disease face special conditions of deprivation: observance of the regime of self-isolation contributes to restriction of physical activity, conditions of stay in home deprive children of natural development of the leading age activity - games, the most effective mastering of which is possible in the process of communication with peers. The absence of systematic training in the graduate class creates the highest level of anxiety and uncertainty. The effects of quarantine and distance learning on children's mental and social health are described in their study by Luijten et al. (2021). Their empirical study shows that during the pandemic, the number of children with symptoms such as anxiety and sleep disorders increased, and the quarantine situation also negatively affected the social sphere by reducing social contact with peers (Luijten et al., 2021). From this point of view, the social layer of students is seemingly in a more secure situation. However, a remote form of the educational process contributes to the development of procrastination ("putting tasks on the back-burner"), limits the sphere of social communication, and restricts future specialists' direct adoption of practical experience. 

Lack of social skills is a risk of forming Internet-dependent behavior (Malyshev & Yakovleva, 2018). In a pandemic, when the Internet and social networks become the only way of communication for young people, this risk increases. The middle-aged population filters all the negative effects of the new coronavirus infection pandemic SARS-Cov-2: Threat or fact of unemployment, transition to form of remote work, social deprivation, need to learn new competencies, anxiety for family members of younger and older generations, exacerbation of conflicts in the family (if previously family members spent a certain limited time in collaboration, now the communication has entered the 24/7 mode, the results of which we can already find in data reflecting the increase in the number of divorces since the abolition of the self-isolation regime in many countries of the world). In addition, modern representatives of the working layer of the population have met with the phenomenon, which in western psychology and management is called the term "overlap" - when the boundaries between professional activity and the home environment are blurred, the working space and professional tasks are moved to the territory, which is intended for rest, recuperation, intimate and personal relations, etc. All the above-mentioned conditions contribute to the highest level of psychological tension and increase susceptibility to stress effects, which are abundant in the modern information environment.

For employees in various areas, the pandemic situation significantly impacted the organization of labor. The transition to telecommuting required significant changes in the lifestyle of office employees, which affected the psychological and physical well-being of many of them (Xiao et al., 2021). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human mental health in the workplace is covered by a review. Scientists agree on the need to take specialized measures to prevent mental problems for each professional field representative (Giorgi et al., 2020).

One of the most vulnerable professional groups to the stressogenic factors of the pandemic is health care professionals. The medical personnel working with patients in specialized departments have a high risk of negotiation, disorders of the emotional sphere and general maladaptation (Kuzmin et al., 2021).

Representatives of the third age group are also in special conditions. Above all, the older population is among the main risk groups for COVID-19. And this, apparently, a purely physical factor, promotes the formation of psychological vulnerability, which is shown in feelings of anxiety, concern, feeling of isolation and loneliness, lack of psychological flexibility in the development of new forms of life organization, communication implementation, and receiving services. 

One of the key factors in all age groups is the type of personality, on which the type of human response to the disease depends more. The type of attitude to the disease, in turn, directly affects the style of behavior; people with a hypochondriac attitude to the disease choose a competing style of behavior since their own "I" has a priority for them (Bardadyn et al., 2019).

The pandemic situation is characterized as a situation of long distress and a high degree of uncertainty of control and prediction. The frustration of basic needs thus leads to phenomena of mental health violation reflected in many studies: anxiety, fear, apathy, stupor, emotional distress, depression, stress, poor mood, irritability, insomnia, symptoms of post-traumatic stress, anger, and emotional exhaustion, reduced mood, and irritability (Fedosenko, 2020). Disorders of the personality's emotional, cognitive, and motivational-will sphere, characteristic of dependent behavior, are also characteristic of the state of learned helplessness (Glukhova & Sheglova, 2009).

For the psychologically unstable person who has insufficient frustration tolerance, stress can become a trigger for the development of maladaptive forms of behavior, the most dangerous category of which is addiction. Addictive disorders are a form of disruption of a person's adaptation to the objective surrounding reality. In many scientific studies, "care" in addictive behavior is seen as a destructive reaction to traumatic events.

If to simplify the principle of addiction development, we can generalize that in conditions of experiencing conditionally negative emotions or with a deficit of positive ones, a person has an interest in using an addictive agent (substance or behavior) to change his psychoemotional background. If normally negative emotions motivate a person to change the conditions that frustrate the satisfaction of basic needs and to their ultimate satisfaction, then when "leaving" for the addiction, the problem situation is ignored. A person does not make efforts to overcome the problem and takes a passive position on his own future. In the meantime, frustration is growing; the need to change the psychoemotional state by using an addictive agent is increasing.

In this way, addictive behavior is formed and is developing, which begins with psychological dependence and, over time, leads to functional changes in the nervous system, physical dependence syndrome, and pathological attraction. We find such a mechanism for addiction development (Dmitrieva & Levina, 2012), as well as in many other authors studying the concept of an addictive personality. Most of them converge in understanding the essence of addiction as a form of avoidance of reality, arising initially as maladaptation, which, as the addictive disorder worsens.

The relationship between learned helplessness and symptomatic manifestations of hypochondriaс attitude to the disease and health allows a person to assume the role of a patient, which entails a decrease in responsibility and removal of the daily duties of a healthy person while increasing attention to the care of others (Kolmogorova & Buikov, 2015).

The authors consider learned helplessness as a basis for the formation of dependent behavior on the example of tobacco smoking in adolescents (Gluhova & Sheglova, 2009).

Several examples of addictive behavior and the learned helplessness state development in pandemic conditions can be considered based on the general mechanism presented in Figure 1. As the most traumatic factors caused by the COVID-19 pandemic state of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear of the unknown, including fear for health and life, can be distinguished. This can strike at one of the basic needs - safety needs. A frustrated need for safety can cause long-term anxiety, which in turn leads to a general disruption of life.

Long-term experience as an unpleasant and depressive emotional state forces a person who does not have a sufficient level of development of coping behavior to take a passive position regarding his own ability to influence events. A state of learned helplessness arises, while anxiety increases with it. A person is looking for external support in order to cope with this negative condition. Drinking alcohol and psychoactive substances with ataractic motivation as a way to relieve emotional tension can be a way to avoid anxiety and trigger the mechanism of addiction. It is also possible to take psychotropic drugs uncontrolled, which forms a violation called "drug dependence."

Another circumstance that requires adaptation to the current world situation is the transition of many States to a self-isolation regime. In such a situation, several groups of needs become vulnerable at once - primarily social, as well as the need for self-realization through usual routine activities, including professional ones. A long stay in conditions of lack of communication and uniformity of life can provoke a sense of boredom, apathy, a feeling of loneliness, and "emptiness" of life. According to many researchers, even in their usual lives, one of the most pronounced motivations for drinking alcohol is hedonistic - getting pleasure (Belousova & Fandej, 2015).

Many people, including those at a stage when it is not yet possible to say about the formed addiction syndrome, resort to alcohol consumption as a form of leisure organization. It does not require special efforts but leads to some emotional detente and helps to fill free time. In a situation where a person has a sharply limited ability to choose various activities, alcohol remains an affordable means of combating boredom. These factors can potentially both accelerate the course of formed or emerging alcohol dependence and serve as a trigger for the emergence of interest in alcohol for those who have lost their usual activities and have not been able to organize new forms of leisure. For young people, samples of narcotic substances are also characteristic of destructive satisfaction of the need for new impressions, the so-called "emotional hunger" (Patrikeeva et al., 2015).

It is also important to say about another risk arising in the context of the frustration of basic needs caused by the pandemic. As new technologies evolve, new forms of dependent behavior emerge. Today, a large number of so-called "non-chemical" additions are distinguished. Among them, the most common is dependence on computer games, social networks, uncontrolled viewing of movies, TV shows, information on the Internet, and an obsessive desire to shop. These and other forms of behavior, which are accepted in society as a norm, can act as a destructive way of coping with negative emotions and develop according to the principles of the development of other addictive disorders. Internet technologies today have increased the opportunities for the development of ludomania, known long ago as dependence on gambling. Now making bets, playing a tote, and an online casino has become available to everyone using the Internet.

A pandemic, with its negative economic consequences, can become a factor that pushes a person to seek alternative earnings. An infantile personality is trying to find a way to enrich without labor - this acts as a motivation to start playing. And the winning and losing system forms pathological attachment and addiction syndrome.

Nowadays, we can only make assumptions about the possibility of developing addictive behavior in people in pandemic conditions since the formation of such violations occurs over time, often long. But already, researchers are convinced in practice that events in the world have influenced this problem. Alcoholism in pandemic-induced stress in people who chronically consume alcohol primarily increases cravings, including at the neurohumoral level (Clay & Parker, 2020). This makes possible the risk of remission failure among those who suffer from alcoholism and are in prolonged abstinence. The health system should be ready for an influx of patients with a drug profile as one of the consequences of the pandemic (Dubeya & Ghoshb, 2020).

Another important factor that can influence the disruption of remissions in persons with addictive disorders is the ban on mass meetings, namely group self-help. One of the most common and effective ways to maintain the remission of alcohol and drug-addicted patients is recognized by organizations of therapeutic community meetings of "Alcoholics Anonymous" "And Drug Anonymous." Attending face-to-face meetings, mutual support, and constant social contact allowed a person not to escape to change the structure of his motives and interests. The therapeutic community acts as a certain form of external support during adaptation to a sober life. This suggests that it is important to pay attention to a group of people in need of post-rehabilitation assistance in overcoming addictive behavior, seeking alternatives, or transforming familiar forms of psychological support for this category of patients. A Figure of the interaction of these phenomena is shown in Figure 1. Empirical implementation of this model on a sample of Russian students showed its viability (Volkova et al., 2021).

Figure 1

The mechanism of pandemic influence as a factor in the emergence of basic needs frustration, development of the learned helplessness state, hypochondriac attitude to the disease, and addictive behavior


As a result of theoretical analysis, an investigation model was built to demonstrate the transition from a pandemic situation into a crisis and trauma. In a fairly large number of cases, a person resorts to "pseudo-decisive" actions: strengthening the hypochondriac type of response or addictive behavior (both chemical and non-chemical. This approach does not allow now to consider the injuries of some professional groups (for example, doctors) who provide medical assistance but themselves need adequate psychological support programs. Special cases of traumatization of medical staff may require comprehensive psychological rehabilitation. We must admit that frustration develops at all levels of personal needs and manifests itself locally - in family and household spheres, and globally – in all spheres of human life.

This leads to effects such as learned helplessness and addictive behavior, often accompanied by a hypochondriac type of response in a wide range of people. These factors significantly reduce both the population's quality of life and mental health, indicating the need to introduce local psychological assistance to heal the resulting psycho-trauma. Recognition of both the fact of the trauma of a pandemic and frustration as the main mechanism of trauma allows you to translate psychological support from a situation of treatment and correction into a situation of complex prevention.

The developed theoretical investigation model is universal by its structure and can be used not only in regions and countries where the pandemic has already acted as a global trauma (China, Russia, the USA, EU countries, and other states that have encountered the pandemic sharply in 2019 - 2020) but also for those regions where the severity of the pandemic has not reached the level of mass traumatization (Coronavirus Statistics, 2022). This model allows both to urgently respond to the crisis that has arisen and to deploy preventive work at any stage in the development of a negative mass situation. It helps the mental health assistant to identify the targets of consulting and psychotherapeutic work more promptly in the mass nature of appeals. In the future, this model can be tested as an algorithm for psychological assistance to various categories of people in a pandemic.


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