Helping people cope during COVID-19

  • 1 March 2022
  • Dr Keith Gaynor
  • Academic, Health, Social


Based on research conducted in UCD since 2020, Dr Gaynor and colleagues have developed an understanding of the psychological impacts of COVID-19. They translated these findings into a free-to-download workbook for the general public, which gives evidence-based advice on how to cope with the pandemic.

It has been promoted through a widespread campaign across national radio, print media, and social media. The team have also shared their findings and advice through webinars to government, mental health charities, and the general public. Together, this has helped thousands of people deal with the psychological challenges of COVID-19. In addition, clinicians have taken up this evidence-based advice to provide mental health services to patients across the country.

Research description

Between September 2020 and May 2021, Dr Gaynor and colleagues conducted three research studies to better understand the psychological impact that COVID-19 is having on people’s lives, and how these impacts might be addressed:

  1. A psychological model looking at behavioural factors in COVID-19 related distress. This survey-based study looked at how much distress related to COVID-19 could be explained by factors such as the type of thoughts people had, how much they worried, and whether they exerted a lot of mental effort thinking about COVID-19.
  2. A qualitative study looking at people’s beliefs about the personal impact of COVID-19. This study looked at what people’s beliefs were about themselves, the world, and other people in relation to COVID-19 (in their own words).
  3. A pilot study into psychological group therapy for COVID-19 related distress. This study looked at the effectiveness of a new group therapy program run via Zoom, which supported people experiencing significant distress related to COVID-19 using the psychological model discussed in Study 1.

The findings of these research studies highlight four important things:

Traumatic thoughts

Traumatic thoughts are a common response to living through a pandemic. These results indicate that we can understand COVID-19 as a so-called “Continuous Traumatic Stressor”, like living in a police state, or during a period of terrorism, or in an apartheid regime. Although we might never experience or witness a specific life-threatening situation, we can still live under a constant sense of threat. These findings suggest that traumatic thoughts are a key target for reducing public distress during the pandemic.

Specific thoughts

The team also identified specific thoughts that people had about themselves, the world, and others. These gave a rich picture of the range of experiences people had through the pandemic, such as:

  • “I am in suspended animation waiting for my life to have some normality in it.”
  • “The world is still beautiful.”
  • “The world is going to be okay”.

Depressed and non-depressed groups within the sample had the same amount of negative thoughts. Importantly, the non-depressed group was able to balance these with thoughts about gratitude and empathy, indicating that targeting public health messaging towards positive psychology and compassion may be beneficial in protecting people from distress.


Formal cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) treatments are appropriate and likely to be helpful in a pandemic situation. This means that clinicians can use existing evidence for mental health treatments in the context of COVID-19.

Remote group therapy

The psychological model developed by Dr Gaynor and his team was translated into practical, understandable therapeutic tools which participants found to be accessible, enjoyable, and useful.


Research team and collaborators

  • Dr Keith Gaynor, Assistant Professor, UCD School of Psychology; and Senior Clinical Psychologist, St John of God Hospital
  • Professor Eilis Hennessy, Professor, UCD School of Psychology
  • Róisín McNamara, Research Assistant, UCD School of Psychology
  • Eamon Aswad, Research Assistant, St John of God Hospital
  • Louise Delz, Master of Psychology Student, UCD School of Psychology
  • Luisa Schmieder, Undergraduate Psychology Student, UCD School of Psychology
  • Ellen Somers, Undergraduate Psychology Student, UCD School of Psychology
  • Rachael O’Connor, Undergraduate Psychology Student, UCD School of Psychology


  • Qualitative study looking at people’s beliefs about the personal impact of COVID-19 (2020): funded by Community Foundation Ireland and AWARE
  • Feasibility study looking at a pilot psychological therapy group for COVID-19 related distress (2020): funded by St John of God Research Foundation
  • Coping During COVID Workbook (2021): funded by St John of God Hospital

Research impact

This research provides a clear and useful framework for managing COVID-19 distress. To communicate this to the public, the team used a “snowballing” approach, where the evidence-based material was made freely available, and people were encouraged to share it among their own networks. More specifically, the team communicated their findings in several ways, making a significant and meaningful contribution to the conversation on mental health in Ireland during the pandemic:

Free workbook

Dr Gaynor and colleagues developed a free-to-download workbook for the general public, “The Coping During COVID Workbook”. It has been distributed through the Psychological Society of Ireland, St John of God Hospital website, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, TikTok, and other social media outlets. It has been advertised three times through appearances on the Ryan Tubridy Show on RTE Radio 1 (reaching around 380,000 listeners each time) and Drive Time (265,000 listeners), as well as in two articles in the Irish Independent newspaper (reaching over 80,000 readers) and the Irish Times.


The team organised a series of webinars for different audiences, raising awareness of approaches to coping with the pandemic. For example, they conducted a webinar and distributed their workbook through the Department of Health and Children’s SciComm Collective, a network of expert Young Science Communicators that aims to inspire and empower young people to live safely within COVID-19 guidelines.

Additional webinars were conducted for AWARE (the depression support and education service), UCD Culture & Engagement, Senior Managers of the Civil Service, the Irish Aviation Authority, and the Library Association of Ireland. Collectively, over 1,000 people attended these events live, and more than 5,000 watched recordings, ensuring more people are equipped with the tools to deal with the psychological challenges of COVID-19.

Clinical practice

Based on the concepts outlined in their research, Dr Gaynor and colleagues developed a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) group, which was provided to patients of St John of God Hospital. In addition, individual clinicians within the HSE have picked up this group psychological treatment, and it is now being provided in services across North County Dublin.

Myself and a group of students listened to a talk you were giving on "coping with covid". They said that they found it extremely helpful. We did a couple of exercises in the PDF Coping with Covid document and the students definitely felt better after doing it, so thank you.

—Secondary school teacher



Selected media

Sample of public response

  • At a presentation, this evening by Snr. Clinical Psychologist Dr Keith Gaynor and loved this quote around the last 18 months: "Each day might have felt like nothing. But what we've been through hasn't been nothing." — Tweet from webinar attendee
  • He [Dr Gaynor] was great this morning. —Tweet from webinar attendee
  • A good guy who speaks immense sense. —Ryan Tubridy on Dr Gaynor


Research references

  • Delz , L. & Gaynor, K. (In Preparation). A confirmatory factor analysis of a cognitive behavioural model of COVID-19 related distress.
  • Gaynor, K., McNamara, R., O'Connor, R., Schmieder, L., Somers, E., & Hennessy, E. (2021, November 25). Qualitative analysis of the cognitive triad in a sample of the general population in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. DOI: 
  • Aswad, E., & Gaynor, K. (2021, December 13). Development and Initial feasibility of an Online Cognitive Behavioral Group Intervention for COVID-19 Related Distress. DOI: