by Brianna Wiest
Despite the repeated consensus that adhering to social distancing guidelines is the most effective way to diffuse the novel coronavirus pandemic, some people were slow to cancel their plans; some are still engaging in get-togethers.
It’s frustrating if this is one of your friends, endangering if it’s one of your immediate family members, and a tricky situation if it’s one of your colleagues, or someone who reports to you.
How do you handle someone who is blatantly ignoring social distancing guidelines? How do you reason with someone who is, essentially, a COVID-19 denier?
Unsurprisingly, there’s a psychological reason why some people may feel highly disinclined to ignore social distancing. There’s a reason why in times of high stress, some people respond with rebelliousness. Understanding this can help you respond, and manage, those reactions better.
Jud Brewer, M.D., Ph.D. is a neuroscientist, addiction psychiatrist and the director of research and innovations at the Mindfulness Center of Brown University. He shares with me that there are likely several reasons why people aren’t staying home right now.
“Some people are trying to retain a feeling of control by ignoring or defying stay-at-home orders. Other people are oppositional in nature and routinely defy authority. Many more are in denial, especially if they aren’t in hardest-hit areas, aren’t in high-risk groups and/or don’t know anyone with the virus.”
Brewer went onto say that anxiety “definitely” affects our ability to think clearly, make decisions or solve problems. The influx of uncertainty could be contributing to a denial of reality or factual information.
“When anxiety gets really bad, we start to panic,” he says. “It leads to thinks like panic-buying.”
Many of these measures are simply a way to regain a sense of control. Writer Maya Kosoff wrote an article explaining why you’re seeing so many people in your newsfeed cooking, cleaning and otherwise managing their household in very small and specific ways. It is, essentially, a form of regaining control.
Vaile Wright, the director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association, says all these ways of exerting control — my soup production included — represent humans’ collective intolerance of uncertainty and the unknown. Our ability to cope with uncertainty is a spectrum, she explains, but to varying degrees, we’re all facing the same challenge right now: Nothing feels stable, which makes us anxious and stressed out. So we act on those feelings. Stuck in our homes, we find projects and rituals to bring us comfort.
Brewer’s experience echos that as well.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, he explains that there are really two ways to stop anxiety from mismanaging your life: first, be aware that we are becoming anxious, and second, understand what the result is. This helps us differentiate behaviors that bring comfort, and behaviors that are actually integral to our survival.
“Panic can lead to behaviors that are dangerous,” he explains. “Anxiety is both acutely mentally and physically weakening and a slow burn that has more long-term health consequences.”
In it for the long-haul
Given that we still have at minimum a number of weeks of extreme social distancing on the horizon, how should we manage teams, friends and family members who aren’t convinced by facts? Here is what Brewer had to say:
Why are some people not convinced by factual information?
“Actions are driven by emotions, not rational thought,” he explains. Understanding this will help you get through some frustration.
What is the best way to talk to people like this?
Brewer says your best bet is “meet them where they’re at” and relate on an emotional level. This means acknowledging the fear, but calmly sharing the facts of the situation, and always encouraging the person to take proper action in order to help facilitate the best possible outcome.
What is the best way to actually change someone’s mind?
Influence is a tricky thing, and swaying someone’s preconceived ideas is even harder. Though you might not be able to completely change their mind, Brewer says the best way to try is by using positive reinforcement. This means encouraging, praising and even giving benefits to members of your team who are acting in accordance with guidelines, or innovating a new way work given the current structure.
How can we be more open to changing our own minds?
Of course, it’s not all about what other people are doing wrong.
If we are the ones struggling to accept our new reality, Brewer says that the first step is to take as much time as we need to “reset” our brains, and cool down emotionally. “When we are anxious or panicked, our thinking brains are offline and we can’t think. The first step is to help them get back online, so that we can take in rational information,” he shares.
Ultimately, things have changed, and even when they do return to normal, it won’t be precisely the new normal that we once knew. There’s a lot of uncharted territory to deal with, and that includes how the people around you are going to respond.