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.
How to practically cope with increasing anxiety during this time
Source: Melanie Wasser/Unsplash
So much in our world has changed since I wrote my last post. And yet, the realities of our existential fears still persist and may be more evident than ever. The anxiety of this world continues to remain palpable – the empty shelves, the sickness, the isolation, death, and the reality of the unknown future. This week, I have been reflecting on the increased anxiety that we feel as humans when there is a threat to our well-being. We have a natural instinct to turn inward, to plan, to gather supplies, to be on high alert. And we have a natural instinct that causes us to feel fear in our bodies. All of these instincts are a result of being faced with four core existential fears (loss of control, challenges to our identity, isolation, and ultimately, our fear of death).1,2 The COVID-19 pandemic hits across all of our existential fears. When we are faced with these fears, we are confronted with information—and what we do with that information matters. As a therapist, I wanted to provide practical ways of coping with these fears and how we can use these fears to help us move forward.
1. Use your fear as information: Acknowledge that you are feeling a feeling. Do not ignore it, honor it, and ask yourself—”What is is this feeling trying to tell me?” For example, if you are feeling exhausted, increased pounding in your chest, inability to stop intrusive thoughts, take a deep breath, acknowledge these feelings and sit with them for a moment to say, “What is my concern here?” Are you afraid of losing work, losing your health, of not knowing what the future holds? Reflect and then begin to see what you can reasonably do with that information. Sometimes all we can do is acknowledge it (i.e., I do not have control over if my college classes are cancelled) and other times we can realize what we do have control over and what we don’t (i.e., I can wash my hands and keep limited social contact, but I cannot ultimately control whether I am exposed to illness). If you allow yourself to use your feelings as information, you can learn something from yourself. Feelings are there for a reason and often do not come from nowhere.
2. Practice acceptance: This may be the hardest step. We often do not want to accept “what is” and we would rather live in an alternate reality of “what we want life to be.” The truth is many will get sick, many will die, and we do not know what the future holds. When we begin with this reality, we can move toward “what is.” We can ground ourselves toward the truth and act accordingly. We wash our hands, we stay home, we connect virtually with those we love and express those feelings. We can begin to acknowledge our existential fears as facts and not fears.
3. Find connection: Talk to people in your life and connect with them. Use virtual means and schedule a hangout. Share your concerns, your struggles. Are there people in your life that are adding to your stress? Give yourself permission to take a break. Do you have someone in your life that will listen to you? Can you find something to talk about that you both can share together that is about something other than this crisis alone? Talk about your favorite show you are watching or the book you are reading. Make this an intention to connect. We are all in the midst of this experience and we might just be able to learn something from each other.
4. Use grounding techniques: When we are in a state of crisis, our body is telling us something. It is telling us to pay attention to the threats around us. This is a protective, natural response of being human. What makes a pandemic so unique is that our bodies are designed to alert us to these threats in short bursts, and cannot sustain threat-signals for an extended period of time. This can create fatigue, exhaustion, and just plain “foggy-headedness.” So you need to ground your body. This is a natural way to signal to your body that it is safe. Grounding techniques are universal and involve our five senses. Breathe deeply with your body in a child’s pose, or lay on the ground with your body on your back stretching like it is waking out of bed and practice deep belly breathing for two minutes. Notice your breath as it moves in and out. Let your thoughts come and go. Do not hold onto them, just notice them. Another grounding technique is called just notice them. Another grounding technique is called progressive muscle relaxation. You can google that to find the specific movements, but it can be as simple as squeezing your muscles tightly as you inhale and releasing your muscles as you exhale. Repeat. Notice your body and your mind.
5. Take a break when you can: Give yourself permission to take a break from the news, from fear and worry. Allow yourself to immerse yourself in a hobby like drawing, listening to music, reading a book, talking with a friend. Allow yourself to laugh and to be in the present moment. Put your phone in a drawer. Sit on your porch and see if you can hear the birds sing. Put “bookends” on your thoughts and when they start to circle back to worry or fear, notice it and then direct your mind to whatever you are doing in that moment. Be intentional about this practice. You do not need to be productive, you just need to feel and be. In fact, we can’t help it. I am just asking you to notice being human.
I hope this is helpful to you during this time. We are in this together. And we need each other. People react to fear in various ways—hoarding, becoming rigid, denial, anger—all various forms of fight, flight, or freeze. In my next post, I will explore this more. But for today, acknowledge what your fears might be trying to tell you. And lean in, trusting that your body is good and trying to tell you something. Listen to reality and ground yourself in your body. Immerse yourself where you are mean to be. Existential fears are a part of our life. We just may have realized it for the first time. Welcome. This is what it means to be fully alive.
Yes, it is important to pay attention to the health effects of a pandemic, but as a therapist, I am more intrigued at the increasing mental health effects of a pandemic. Often, it has been said that the difference between humans and animals is our awareness of the reality that we humans will one day die. Depressing, panic-inducing, isn’t it? How quickly we want to avoid reading the rest of this article, eh?
This is exactly my point. Animals exist with the awareness of a feeling or instinct of an imminent threat. Humans have the unique ability to perceive that it has the potential to be a threat to our wellbeing and we can even imagine how it might feel. We can imagine what it would be like to be in isolation, we can visualize how we feel getting sick, or even worse, what it would be like to possibly be faced with our own death and the potential of a loss of a future. This is what makes us, well, so uniquely human. So why does this induce panic?
We need to understand that as humans, we collectively have four existential fears.1,2 First, we have the fear of groundlessness, which is defined as the loss of control and the burden of freedom. There are things that we can control, such as where we plan to travel, whether we wash our hands or cover our mouths, all while realizing that we do not ultimately have control over what happens to us—whether or not we follow all of the prevention measures. Life can be largely out of our control and this feels scary, especially because we like to think we have more control that what we actually do.
Our second existential fear is isolation, or the fear of being truly alone. This fear is the realization that each of us experiences our own life from our unique perspective alone. Even though we have close relationships, we are the only ones that know what it’s like to live out our life with our experiences. Although we share our experiences with those closest to us, no one will ever know our innermost workings. No one knows precisely what is to be me. Aside from me, no one knows who I actually am. And this terrifies us.
Third, we must wrestle with identity, or the understanding of who I am. Identity and isolation are intimately tied together: Loneliness is born out of this fear. People often isolate themselves because they are fearful that others will learn who they truly are and ultimately reject them. We fear rejection, so we change who we are to fit how we think others want to see us. We do this so that we can feel that we are accepted and loved. For example, we might have shared our concern about the pandemic and then been dismissed by others around us, or even been made the butt of a joke. This can challenge our ability to even begin to acknowledge who we are because we fear being known and ultimately rejected.
And finally, we fear death. It is in our nature to live, to strive and to create meaning out of this life. We are evolutionarily programmed for life (e.g., survival). When we are faced with the potential for our own demise, we are challenged with “what is the meaning of this life after all?” We realize that life is temporary and that we will all die; however, this realization shatters our assumptions, because we never really think that we would be the ones to be faced with death now.
The COVID-19 pandemic touches on each of these four existential themes. We must pay attention to each of these existential fears so that we can become familiar with them, rather than avoid them. Avoiding fear creates space for further panic, isolation, loneliness, depression, and hopelessness. If you are struggling to face your existential fears, contact a professional who can help support you through this process. It takes courage to acknowledge your existential fears—in fact, we do a lot to avoid them altogether. But so much can be gained by understanding our fears and engaging them, rather than running from them or numbing them. In the next post, I’ll examine the benefits of engaging our existential fears.
The challenges are daunting. Yes, we are vulnerable.
But each of us can find the courage room inside.
The first part of this article is a story about how frightening the current pandemic is for some of us, and how one young woman is finding her courage every day. (This client has given me permission to share some of her story, hoping her courage is contagious.)
The second part describes two different practices for courage-building. If either one resonates, grab a journal or open a fresh computer doc and WRITE IT OUT or (with bilateral stimulation) DO IT. The key is to act because action is POWER: a main ingredient of COURAGE.
Angel of a New Life.
She’s so distraught that she needs time to cry before the session can begin. “But I’m afraid of dying. I will die . . .This could be Armageddon. Couldn’t it?” Since COVID-19 has become a pandemic, Angel, a woman who recently left an apocalyptic religion, has experienced a resurgence of acute PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms: panic attacks, overwhelming fear, dissociation, feelings of abandonment.
I respond, into my computer screen, “No, Angel. I don’t believe it’s Armageddon. We’ve talked about this. And I know you’re scared. Before we keep going, please find your feet on the floor.”
I give her a moment. “Do your feet feel the same on either side?” At first, she can’t feel her right foot. At all: she’s dissociated—unable to feel her body fully. For Angel, this manifests first in her feet; she cannot feel the ground. This brings on a new round of panicked tears. I speak again, wishing that our two bodies were in the same room instead of on opposite sides of Toronto and opposite sides of our screens. When someone is upset, dissociating, crying, just sitting quietly with a loving witness can be a great help. Our brains and bodies are inherently social; the presence of an emotionally-regulated person brings calm to an individual or even a group in acute distress. Our emotions are contagious.
Does it work through a screen, though? Therapists all over the world are asking themselves that question right now. “Angel, I’m here. I’m with you. Keep your eyes open. Look at me. If you can’t feel the right foot, just focus on your left foot. Move your toes up and down. Lift your heel. Now touch your one hand to the opposite knee. Then the other hand. That’s it.” She shivers, sighs, touches and touches, back and forth.
After this short round of bilateral stimulation — rhythmic touches on alternating sides of the body — a wave passes through her body, top to the bottom. Though I can’t see her right foot — we’re working in separate rooms, each on our screens — I know from her and eyes face that her awareness has entered the ‘missing’ foot, connecting her back to the floor and to the present. “Back in the feet? ” I ask the familiar question.
She answers, “Yes, back in my body.”
Touching one side, then the other: it’s a deceptively simple grounding technique, but it works in profound ways. Bilateral stimulation can be tactile, visual, or auditory — gentle rhythmic stimulation to either side of the body/ears/eyes to calm and soothe the nervous system.
Eastern physical and spiritual practices like yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, and all the martial arts have elaborate systems based on this technique; Western neuroscience and psychotherapy have finally joined the club. Most of the somatic trauma therapies developed in the last twenty years use some form of bilateral stimulation. Though I work a lot with visualization and mindfulness, my core practice as a therapist is OEI — Observed Experiential Integration — another bilateral stimulation therapy that changed my life twenty years ago, when I was healing from the traumas of my childhood.
We Live in a Beautiful, Traumatized World.
Many of us have extensive histories of abandonment and trauma: child abuse, including neglect, insecure attachment to caregivers, religious trauma similar to Angel’s; violent and emotionally abusive adult relationships; combat experiences; assaults of many kinds; school, academic, and workplace bullying; life-altering accidents, shootings. Many trauma victims grow into kind, productive individuals who have healed, who are healing, who want to heal. Yet many more are in prison or live in prison-like personal circumstances, trapped in the pain and disconnection of traumatic reenactment.
While life protects none of us from misfortune, with the spread of Covid-19, some people are experiencing traumatic stress as daily reality for the first time. Having never experienced anything like this before, many people are deeply confused, which often expresses itself as an inability to focus. When everything normal has changed, it is natural to feel disoriented and fearful.
Even for those of us who are relatively safe, this pandemic carries all the markers of the traumatic experience:
Powerlessness. Intense anxiety. Lack of predictability.
Fear of impending injury or death. A disordered sense of reality and time.
Disrupted social bonds.
For those who are working in essential services and healthcare, the dangers are potentially lethal. The brave work some people are doing now will leave the deep internal scars of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But the rest of us also have to contend with this frightening time. Later in the session, Angel asked, “But how can my parents not even call me? How can they not check in on me? Did they never love me at all?” Her family has disowned her for leaving ‘the truth.’ She’s had very little contact with her family or old JW friends. She already has created a small circle of new friends, but she craves contact with her ‘old world’ and her parents and siblings.
Ostracism is one of the most wounding things a group can do to an individual or family unit. Social death is truly a form of death. And with this pandemic, because we’re so cut off from each other, millions of people are experiencing a taste of social death and ostracism.Our internal and external social engagement systems have been disturbed or completely overturned. Forced isolation is painful.
Single clients tell me — on a phone or computer screen, at this time — that they think they are going “fucking crazy.” I nod and say, “Let’s work with that.” We are social creatures; our bodies and our brains are social machines. We can now see on MRI scans that our brains respond to and interact with each other all the time — right down to the level of mirror neurons. We experience our connections with each other as both emotions and physical feelings in the body.
That’s why the glance of a stranger’s eyes or the gaze of a loved one can be so powerful. It’s brain to brain contact. By reading this, you share with me a moment, a small world of thought.
I continue to work with Angel on her renewed symptoms. She feels deep grief for the loss of her family. This is part of religious and betrayal trauma: in breaking away from an abusive religion or relationship, the person often loses a community as well as an identity. Sometimes, when Angel feels like she can’t cope with this world and her fear, I remind her of the extraordinary courage she found to make her escape in the first place.
My therapy and mentorship practice is called The Courage Room. That doesn’t only indicate the name of the place; it’s also another way of saying ‘the human body’. Each of us has within a room of resilience and strength. You are the courage room. I am the courage room. We are in this together.
Below, you will find two techniques for building your courage (finding your calm is an extra benefit.)
Finding The Courage Room Inside: two basic techniques
#1. Make Courage Real: Visualize The Courage Resource
The first step in building courage is to imagine it. Never underestimate the healing power of the imagination.
Usually every one of us, even those who’ve lived through damaging experiences, can remember a time and a place where we were safe, where we experienced a sense of happiness and contentment. In therapy-speak, we call this a resource; remembering the resource place or activity is called resourcing. We summon up those places in our memories we can use for self-nourishment and stabilization.
These do not have to be fancy places. Often they are humble. One safe place in a house: for one client, it was under the dining room table of her childhood. Sometimes it’s a backyard or garden. A park you used to love as a kid (or still love as an adult). A safe relative or friend’s house.
So think of (or imagine — custom-build one) your place of courage and safety.
Meditate upon it. Daydream about it. Honour it in your mind and heart.
Courage can also be contained, like a talisman, in one small object in our mind or physical life. Imagine the space or the object.
Hold it in your hand if exists: turn it into your courage talisman.
Now, grab the journal or open the fresh document and write down the story of your courage room/object. Really DO IT: the physical act is an act of power. Accessing power through your imagination gives you courage. Courage COMES from the imagination. More on that in another blog post, and a book I’m writing . . .
My house is full of small and large rocks and stones because at different times, they’ve given me courage, or a view into another possibility. Rocks and stones especially are dense, beautiful objects of power. Their solidity is dependable. And one of my most important ‘courage’ rooms and talismans combined is a big tree in my neighbourhood. I visit it almost every day. I love that tree!
Close your eyes and think about how the courage of this space/object can grow, expand, giving you both strength and a sense of calm. When you experience distress, upset, exhaustion, fear, PTSD symptoms, go to your room/object and get in touch with your courage resource. The more you work with this, the more powerful it becomes.
Visualization can be many things, including a spiritual practice that’s part of meditation, but it’s also a form of brain exercise that translates into physical results. For decades, elite athletes have employed visualization in their training; a whole body of research shows how effective visualization is for building co-ordination, strength, and spatial memory.
#2. Bilateral Stimulation
Anyone can experiment with stimulating each side of their body in a simple alternating sensory pattern. When we touch the body, or focus our vision or hearing in a certain way, we send signals to the brain: it’s the brain that actually allows us to feel, see, hear, taste, smell. Focused, intentional bilateral stimulation has a regulating effect on the brain, the body, and the entire nervous system.
So next time you are panicking, ready to scream at someone, filled with the pressure to harm yourself or another person in any way (in reality or in your imagination) please count to ten, take a few deep conscious breaths, and give the techniques below a try. We bilaterally stimulate naturally when we walk, dance, push the pedals of our bicycle.
First and foremost, as I did with Angel above, put your feet on the floor. Feel your feet. Feel how each side might give you a slightly or a radically different sensation. Pay attention. Go back and forth. Just stay with your feet; the feeling will come into them.
Breathe into your belly. You don’t want to have the breath up in your throat; pull it all that way into the bottom of your lungs and let your belly fill with air.
Take your right hand and gently tap your left knee or thigh. (Further focus comes when we cross the midline of the body, hence the left to right sequencing.) Take your left hand and gently tap your right knee or thigh.
Repeat 20 times, paying careful attention to how this simple exercise helps to calm down your body. Keep breathing into your lower lungs and belly. Feel your feet on the floor. Repeat more if it helps.
If you want to get more active, stand up. Feel your feet on the floor. Lift your right knee up and touch it with your left hand. Repeat on the other side. Do this bilateral stimulation march for a few steps, remaining in place, to see if it works for you.
Turn these two basic, easy techniques into part of a mental health hygiene routine. Share these techniques with friends and family. Kids can also use conscious bilateral stimulation to calm down, to feel better, to focus on homework, and to self-soothe.
The Beginning, Not the End, of The World
Social distancing has brought Angel into a renewed period of mourning for the loss of her family; it’s an ongoing sorrow, especially in a time when most of us are anxious to connect, to remind ourselves that we belong, we are part of our families and of the human family. In a recent session, Angel talked at length about losing her family, her friends, feeling that she had died to them; none of the community members that she’s known her whole life have called to see how she’s doing.
“It’s like Armageddon has already come and I’m dead!” Her face seemed to be ready to crumple. I thought she might cry. But something else happened. Her expression altered and opened; her face lit up. And her voice became stronger as she said, “But I’m not dead. Obviously! I’m ALIVE. I’ve already resurrected myself. That’s what leaving was for me. Resurrection. And it’s the only kind of resurrection I will ever know. So I’m not going to waste it.” Then she did something she’s only recently started doing, after almost thirty-three years of living: she swore, with great feeling, “Fuck that!” We burst out laughing, each leaning in to get closer on either side of our computer screens.
Here’s to self-resurrection. Here’s to spring, which shows us every year how to come alive again.
(Disclaimer: Dear Reader, this article is not a substitute for therapy or counselling. If you are experiencing serious distress, please call a hotline or a trusted friend for support.!)
The emergence of COVID-19 as a public health emergency by the World Health Organization has led to a number of precautionary measures such as quarantines, social distancing or in some cases total lockdown in region or countries around the world.
For the first time since WWII, Europeans have been confronted with such restrictions and have to adjust to new realities where the future is unpredictable. Keeping a job and earning a living have become uncertain, especially for those who are already in a precarious situation, leading to greater levels of stress and anxiety. Furthermore, limiting access to normal daily activities, not just going to work, but normal social interactions with others provokes mental health issues, and weakens physical health for those who already struggle to maintain good health and wellbeing.
This situation is particularly worrying for prisoners, who may experience greater mental health effects as they are deprived of external social contacts for a longer period. Children are also affected by social isolation and the mental health issues this provokes. For those who already experiencing loneliness, the social distancing required to stop the pandemic only further raises their feelings of social isolation.
Feelings of loneliness and social isolation, heightened by the current public health crisis, can have severe health consequences for a number of socio-economic groups. Anxiety and apathy, as well as loneliness, are some of the mental health consequences that will persist long after the pandemic ends, while the increased feelings of depression and stress, especially during a time of uncertainty, may have serious impacts on public health, increasing people’s vulnerability to poor health, and weakening society as a whole. Social isolation should not become a norm, even if some specific circumstances require social distancing. These two terms are often used interchangeably but their meanings should be clearly distinguished and used in an appropriate manner. Indeed, it may be more appropriate to talk about “physical distancing” instead.
Tackling the pandemic and preventing its further spread is vital for society, but such measures do not mean there should be a collapse in social contact. The impact of isolation and loneliness should not be under-estimated or fall to the bottom of politicians’ lists of priorities as inaction now will lead to high human and financial costs later on. The strong social and economic arguments should be enough to convince decision makers that they also need to take urgent action to tackle people’s social isolation especially those in a vulnerable situation. Developing effective interventions, including prevention measures is not an easy task during a public health emergency when priorities have to be redefined and public spending has to be urgently reallocated; but consideration of these issues now can widely contribute to limiting the long-term effects of the current crisis.
In an era when digital technology is an integral part of people’s lives, public authorities must deploy their capacity to meet people’s needs and address both the physical and mental health impacts of social isolation. Online medical consultations can support doctors and patients to ensure proper medical follow-up, which is widely affected by confinement. Such a measure will demonstrate the role of digital technologies in the health sector and provide an effective response to patients’ needs – allowing patients to be properly diagnosed and avoid self-medication that can additionally worsen people’s health during a health emergency.
The possibility for online discussion with a health professional or a psychologist is another concrete action that can help reduce anxiety and panic and overcome feelings of being alone or powerlessness. Virtual thematic discussions and group activities offered by social workers can also help combat social isolation – people can be part of a collective where they can “meet” and discuss with others, their common values and interests. Teachers play an important role for child’s socialization, through online classes, as well as extra-school activities that can meet children’s specific social needs.
As we continue into uncharted times with the COVID-19 pandemic, we must change our focus to how we can combat this virus and support one another during this crisis. This global pandemic affects each and every one of us. Unfortunately, not everyone believes in science and nor is taking it seriously. Too many people are going against the suggestions of medical professionals and scientists, putting all of us at risk. Estimates now are that due to a lack of proper preparation to accept tests offered by WHO, as well as masks, alcohol wipes, and ventilators from suppliers, 100,000 – 240,000 Americans might die due to this virus, potentially millions. There is currently NO national shelter in place order with specific guidelines for essential people and services, which must continue. Things are being organized state by state. Epidemiologists state the virus does not respect artificial boundaries.
Additionally, religious leaders are using fear of the End Times to manipulate members. (I wrote about this last week, here.) And others refuse to stop meeting as a congregation, claiming they are essential and trust in God to protect them. One such example is a megachurch in Louisiana. Texas Pastors are asking for a religious exemption to the stay at home order.
Even more disturbing is Ralph Drollinger, who runs a weekly Bible study for Trump administration Cabinet officials and other politicians, suggested the coronavirus pandemic is due to God’s wrath over homosexuality and environmentalism. I wrote about Drollinger, the Christian Right, and the influence they have on today’s political administration, in my book, The Cult of Trump.
This brings me to this week, where I had a chance to interview the award-winning author and media analyst, Anne Nelson. I learned much by reading her book, Shadow Network, and it largely validated a lot of what I wrote about in The Cult of Trump. Her research and insights are invaluable into the network and 501C-3 Council for National Policy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already gained its place on the dark side of world history for a variety of reasons: sudden onset, speed of global transmission, mistakes in recognition and management, politically inspired neglect or minimizations. The already dramatic infection and mortality figures have led to seemingly desperate and extreme government decisions in many countries. Its social, economic/financial, and public health impact is very impressive and, obviously, more powerful and damaging among the poor and disadvantaged population segments worldwide.
Not surprisingly, the mental health implications of this crisis were recognized early in the process. Psychopathological and clinical terms were used from the beginning by the media and social networks to describe attitudes, pronouncements, reactions, and behaviors from individuals and groups in different scenarios: fear, cynicism, lies, or denial moving to anxiety, panic, hysteria, and even . The scope of these words quickly broadened and became the subject o administrative, community-oriented measures, including the need to provide mental health or psychological counseling. From the perspective of the mental health professions, it is important to assess the emotional impact of some of those dispositions themselves. One of the most relevant examples is that related to the so-called social distance, later enlarged to social isolation, first as part of preventive health care advice, and then, as a critical component of “shelter in place” or total lockdown decrees.
Every type of adverse situation, particularly in the health field, entails uncertainties and ambiguities. A measure such as “social distance,” for instance, is dictated in the name of social integrity, protection or solidarity; the imposition of “social isolation” invoked individual and group safety as its raison d’être. Social isolation may be just a phrase but, under the present circumstances, it is certainly a public policy order, a commandment, with intimations of punishment if and when not duly followed. It is precisely the type of disposition that can lead to a unique mood state, a multifaceted cognitive/emotional experience, mental feature—loneliness—that in some cases may generate demoralization and well-defined clinical conditions.1 In fact, the sequence of social isolationàloneliness constitutes an excellent example of both an etio-pathogenic route and a source of individual reflections, an opportunity of self-examination leading to a therapeutic pathway.
The many faces of loneliness
The term was first used at the end of the 16th century to define “the condition of being solitary.” In 1677, Milton’s Paradise Lost featured one of the first lonely characters in British literature, Satan, who describes his loneliness in terms of vulnerability. The word acquired its concrete meaning of “feeling of being dejected from want of companionship or sympathy,” only by the start of the 19th century. In an interesting essay, Worsley2 emphasizes “lonely spaces” as places in which one might meet “someone who could do you harm, with no one else around to help.” The term has evolved from being “usually relegated to the space outside the city,” that is, a merely physical condition to “moving inward . . . taking up residence inside minds, even the minds of people living in bustling cities.” The author concludes that by doing this, loneliness has brought “wilderness inside us.”
Thus, loneliness exhibits a complex conceptual journey. The dictionary definitions of being without company, unfrequented, isolated, or lonesome describe an individual feeling as well as a social experience, a perception of abandonment and/or a desire for company or refuge; the latter can also make of loneliness an existential state, a way of looking at life and people as components of a reality that belongs to others. Still, away from a truly clinical nature but already delineating fragile junctures, loneliness may have solitude as a synonym, a very personal requirement for the exercise of meditation or reflections—a refuge, again.
The feeling of loneliness leads initially to reflections about what is going on at the present time. The uncertainties of a future worst-case scenario (eg, positive coronavirus test, gradual onset of symptoms, hospitalization, complications, etc) may give place, later, to reflections about one’s own life, expectations and hopes, accomplishments and failures, self-criticisms and self-condemnations, a sense of no-return. Missing alternatives in the near or distant past, grateful moments unable to be re-lived, failed job opportunities or attempts to improve or excel, the present (or absent) impact of religion, spirituality, romantic encounters, personal phantasies, or impossible dreams are all material agitated by the apparently quiet psychological surface of loneliness.
The coronavirus pandemic has prompted widespread panic buying, with people stripping stores of hand sanitizers, face masks, toilet paper, hand soap, thermometers, medications — just about anything they fear will soon disappear from the shelves.
Some of that buying is rational, such as making sure you have enough medication to treat chronic medical conditions, for example. But much of it is irrational, such as filling up a shopping cart with toilet paper rolls (and then having a fistfight over it).
As BBC reporter Bryan Lufkin points out in an article on the psychology of panic buying, there are real-world consequences to such behavior, for panic buying “can drive up prices and take essential goods out of the hands of people who need them most (such as face masks for health workers).”
So why do people do it? “Experts say the answer lies in a fear of the unknown, and believing that a dramatic event warrants a dramatic response — even though, in this case, the best response is something as mundane as washing your hands,” writes Lufkin.
“Under circumstances like these, people feel the need to do something that’s proportionate to what they perceive is the level of the crisis,” Taylor said. “We know that washing your hands and practicing coughing hygiene is all you need to do at this point.”
“But for many people, hand-washing seems to be too ordinary,” he added. “This is a dramatic event, therefore a dramatic response is required, so that leads to people throwing money at things in hopes of protecting themselves.”
The need for risk aversion
Experts also say panic buying can be understood as the intersection of three powerful psychological phenomena: herd behavior, loss aversion and regret.
“Herd behaviour explains why we like to buy popular products, or join queues without knowing where they’re going,” writes Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reporter James Purtill in an article attempting to make sense of why so many people have felt a need to stockpile toilet paper. “Loss aversion is about our fear of missing out — we tend to think it’s better to have extra of something than miss out.”
As David Savage, a behavioral economist at the University of Newcastle told Purtill, “The bigger problem for us is when loss aversion starts to kick in and we start thinking about what would happen if I currently have the opportunity to buy this product and I choose not to, and then down the track, when I am isolated, I run out, that’s when we hit regret.”
“Regret is a really, really powerful motivator. It actually makes us feel way worse than just loss,” he added. “Not only is it missing out on something, it’s missing out on something that I had the choice to fix. That’s a really big kicker, that one.
With the fear and panic surrounding the Corona Virus at the moment, its advisable to understand how the media can be responsible.
News is a money-making industry. One that doesn’t always make the goal to report the facts accurately. Gone are the days of tuning in to be informed straightforwardly about local and national issues. In truth, watching the news can be a psychologically risky pursuit, which could undermine your mental and physical health.
Fear-based news stories prey on the anxieties we all have and then hold us hostage. Being glued to the television, reading the paper, or surfing the Internet increases ratings and market shares — but it also raises the probability of depressionrelapse.
News programming uses a hierarchy of if it bleeds, it leads. Fear-based news programming has two aims. The first is to grab the viewer’s attention. In the news media, this is called the teaser. The second aim is to persuade the viewer that the solution for reducing the identified fear will be in the news story. If a teaser asks, “What’s in your tap water that YOU need to know about?” a viewer will likely tune in to get the up-to-date information to ensure safety.
The success of fear-based news relies on presenting dramatic anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, promoting isolated events as trends, depicting categories of people as dangerous and replacing optimism with fatalistic thinking. News conglomerates who want to achieve this use media logic, by tweaking the rhythm, grammar, and presentation format of news stories to elicit the greatest impact. Did you know that some news stations work with consultants who offer fear-based topics that are pre-scripted, outlined with point-of-view shots, and have experts at-the-ready? This practice is known as stunting or just-add-water reporting. Often, these practices present misleading information and promote anxiety in the viewer.
Another pattern in newscasts is that the breaking news story doesn’t go beyond a surface level. The need to get-the-story-to-get-the-ratings often causes reporters to bypass thorough fact-checking. As the first story develops to a second level in later reports, the reporter corrects the inaccuracies and missing elements. As the process of fact-finding continually changes, so does the news story. What journalists first reported with intense emotion or sensationalism is no longer accurate. What occurs psychologically for the viewer is a fragmented sense of knowing what’s real, which sets off feelings of hopelessness and helplessness — experiences known to worsen depression.