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Interview with Dr. Steven Taylor


📷 Canadian Psychological Association

Journalist: Haleema Ahmed


Haleema Ahmed:

Hello everyone and welcome back to SciSection. I’m Haleema, your journalist for this week, and today we are delighted to have Dr. Steven Taylor. Dr. Taylor is a Psychiatry Professor at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Taylor focuses on anxiety disorders in both the academic and clinical setting and he also studies the psychology of pandemics (which is incredibly relevant today!). Dr. Taylor is also a member of the Government of Canada’s COVID-19 Expert Panel and he has published several books and articles in his field. Thank you for joining us!

Dr. Steven Taylor:

Thanks so much for having me.

Haleema Ahmed:

Just so our audience can get to know a bit more about you, as a published author yourself, what is the best book you’ve ever read?

Dr. Steven Taylor:

Where to start? I really couldn't say— there are so many books and it also depends on the best book for what topic. I really could not say as there is not one that stands out for me.

Haleema Ahmed:

I am also a really avid book lover myself, and I don't think I could ever pinpoint a particular book too. Now that we are on the topic of pandemics, which quarantine hobby do you still keep up now?

Dr. Steven Taylor:

Hiking, scuba diving, and when I can, underwater photography. Those sorts of things I try to keep up with, but I have also been busy during the pandemic. I haven't been able to pursue them as often as I would have liked to.

Haleema Ahmed:

Lastly, because you are in British Columbia right now, what part of British Columbia is your most frequently visited or favourite location?

Dr. Steven Taylor:

We have been doing some short trips to the Gulf islands off the coast of Vancouver island, which have been pretty great for getaways.


Haleema Ahmed:

That's awesome, British Columbia is so beautiful, I would love to visit someday as well. Now, getting into your field, you have authored over 300 scientific publications and more than 20 books related to psychology; it's obviously your field of expertise. Where did this interest begin?

Dr. Steven Taylor:

As a kid, we used to do a lot of spear fishing and some of the people we went spear fishing with were psychiatric workers, psychiatrists, and psychiatric nurses. They would talk to me about their work and the patients they would encounter and the clinical problems they dealt with. I got fascinated and I thought that psychology sounded quite interesting. Then I remember as a freshman, just before entering my first year of university at Melbourne, we were asked to talk with student counsellors. I remember this long-haired hippie was responsible for interviewing me. He told me under no uncertain terms that I should not major in psychology and that I will never get a job. I took that as a challenge and went ahead and became a psychologist. I do not know what happened to the hippie dude, but I hope he's happy somewhere doing some hippie thing.

Haleema Ahmed:

You most definitely proved him wrong, so that's good. Going into your published work, your most recent book, "The Psychology of Pandemics", was published several weeks before the outbreak of COVID-19. Why did you release this book when you did? Were you shocked when the World Health Organization announced the novel coronavirus just a few weeks later?

Dr. Steven Taylor:

I thought a pandemic was coming, but I didn't realize it was coming so soon. The backstory is a part of my research and clinical work involves health anxiety which means excessive worry or anxiety about one's health. A moderate degree of anxiety is adaptive and healthy. It gets you to the doctor when you notice something is wrong and so forth. But people with excessive health anxiety become so overwhelmed with anxiety that they're unable to function. With that background, 2018 was the centenary of the so-called Spanish Flu and lots of media interviews with historians of medicine and virologists and other disease experts were discussing the Spanish Flu and the next pandemic. That got me interested in looking into this more. The more I realized that pandemics were, to a large extent, psychological phenomena, where the behaviour of people determines whether or not a disease spreads throughout the world and whether or not people agree to engage in disease containment measures like social distancing. I realized there's a huge psychological cost to pandemics, particularly those with lockdown, which profoundly affect the mental health of many people. Most importantly, I realized that no one had ever put all of this together in a book to explain the psychology of pandemics. Early 2019, I finished the book and I sent it to my publisher who had published my previous books. He looked at it and he rejected it. He said, "That's an interesting idea, but no one is going to want to read this book." I thought he was wrong. I found another publisher and the rest is history. The book was published a few weeks before COVID-19 was first identified in Wu Han.

Haleema Ahmed:

Were you shocked when the coronavirus was announced a few weeks later? Did you feel like you had really lucky timing in terms of world events? Obviously COVID is not a lucky thing, but in terms of releasing this book and then having it be so readily connected to what was happening in the world?

Dr. Steven Taylor:

It was a surreal experience. It is one thing to spend a lot of time sitting at your desk, writing about something. For example, to be immersed in the Middle Ages, reading about and writing about how people grapple with the plague and how panic buying, racism and looting occured. It is one thing to spend all your time in the dusty archives reading about it but, it is a completely different experience to actually watch it unfold before your eyes real time. That was what it was like for me in late 2019 and early 2020. I was watching COVID-19 unfold in the same way that past pandemics had unfolded. I remember in early 2020 thinking, we've seen panic buying, we've seen the rise of racism, we've seen anticipatory anxiety. We're seeing all those socially disruptive events. I thought, what about the rise of altruism? Altruism was a big feature in past outbreaks. In fact, in past pandemics, altruism tended to be more common than bad behaviour like looting and riots. Early 2020, I'm thinking maybe this pandemic is different. Maybe there won't be altruism? Wouldn't that be unfortunate? But then a few weeks later, the 7:00 PM cheer for healthcare workers started up and I was quite gratified that at least that aspect of past pandemics had been carried through to COVID 19.

Haleema Ahmed:

That is quite incredible just to think about how the past is mimicking the present. Yet, we find it difficult to learn lessons from the past because we think everything is so different today. But as you mentioned, there are so many similarities. Commonly, we associate pandemics with the biology or the virology of the disease itself, how we treat it and how it spreads, which has been a large topic in the media. Your book really links psychology with pandemics. Why do you think that connection, so rarely made, is also so important?

Dr. Steven Taylor:

Why hasn't anyone talked more about the importance of psychology? Historians had done it and done it well, but they have done it as far as historians could do it. They weren't psychologists. They could describe psychological phenomena, but they weren't able to interpret the motivations about them. I blame psychology and psychologists. Maybe it's our fault for not looking into this problem and saying this may be a psychological problem, we should prepare for it. I know psychologists have been spending a lot of time on issues around climate change, which is going to be a huge problem for us to grapple with in the coming years and decades ahead. I really cannot explain the oversight except to say that human beings tend to be myopic; we tend to focus on problems immediately in front of us. For example, we have people thinking about climate change right now because they think it's an immediate problem. If we went back to early 2019, I spoke to people about this very issue because I was working on my book. They said, "This is nothing for us to worry about. This is a once in a lifetime event that will never happen to us. We don't even need to think about it." This is the reason why my former publisher rejected the book. It was shortsighted and it was saying, we need to address the problems before us and ignore the rest. This isn't unique to our epoch. It happened after the Spanish Flu where in 1920, people stopped wearing masks. They forgot the lessons they learned about that flu. They just went on to the Roaring twenties and focused on things immediately in their lives. That reflects part of human nature. We tend to focus on what's right in front of us that we have to deal with right now.

Haleema Ahmed:

In several ways, this pandemic is eerily similar to the many we've had in human history. Despite the similarities, we struggled this time with public health measures, conspiracy theories, etc. Do you think that was a result of myopathy or something else that causes us to not really connect our history to the present day. Was it because of the disconnect between scientists and politicians/leaders? Why do you think we were not able to learn from the past when everything is so eerily similar?

Dr. Steven Taylor:

We live in a very forward focused society where we're looking for the next upgrade of software or the next technological toy. We don't look too much to the past. We look to the future and that's who we've become. We've become enamored of technology and you add that to the rising anti-science attitude where people become suspicious of science or frightened of science or don't understand science because it's too complicated. For those people, science becomes magical superstition. This can make the managing of pandemics like COVID-19 even more challenging.

Haleema Ahmed:

Lastly, we've experienced many waves with this pandemic. Now, we have newer variants, a rise in cases, protests outside hospitals and we may not be seeing that light at the end of the tunnel that we'd really hoped for. How would you recommend people approach this new wave positively, especially since lockdown has been associated with an increase in mental health issues?

Dr. Steven Taylor:

Firstly, we need to, as individuals and as communities, do a self-assessment. Ask yourself: how are you coping with this pandemic? What's going well for you? What's not going well? Are you irritable? Are you shopping excessively online? Are you addicted to internet porn? Are you abusing substances or alcohol as a way of coping with the restrictions? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then you need to improve your coping. Are you finding yourself excessively irritable or depressed or very anxious? These are the signals that tell us this is a difficult time, but maybe it's time to start thinking about ways of improving our coping strategies. That might involve simply returning to things that you might've done early on during the pandemic, like regularly going for walks or setting a schedule. It's important to realize that it is a difficult time. This is not easy. We are set up with something in the animal learning literature called "frustrated non reward." We were expecting, or indeed promised in some ways, that the pandemic would be over in the summer. I just saw a recent headline that Dina Hinshaw from Alberta apologized for suggesting that the pandemic might be ending in the summertime. People were expecting that which is the frustrating non-reward part. You're expecting a treat, you're expecting the pandemic to be over, for lockdown to be rescinded and for social activities to resume as normal. You're expecting that reward and it doesn't happen. You get a recurrent wave, more lockdowns, people get grumpy, irritable, and start looking around for someone to blame. We need to recognize that reaction that could occur in ourselves; it's a natural reaction. Step back and say, "I'm stressed out about this frustrating situation. The best I can do is to try not to make it worse for myself." There are some nice online resources and phone apps too. If you search for "cognitive behavior therapy" or "cognitive behavioral interventions”, they can support you with a whole host of problems like insomnia, addictions, anxiety, depression, and so forth. If those don't work and if connecting with friends and family doesn't work, then I suggest you go and see your family doctor, or go to Student Health to get a referral to a mental health practitioner. If you are suffering from psychological problems during COVID on the one hand, it's understandable. But on the other hand, there is help available


Haleema Ahmed:

On that note, thank you so much Dr. Taylor for our insightful conversation today that exposed us to a side of the pandemic that we rarely talk about. If you want to learn more about his work, check out his books and articles at drsteventaylor.com