Why Covid-19 is Bringing Out The Best and The Worst in Us

Over the past week, I have been texted and called with so many questions about how to deal with problems related to Covid-19. People with marital problems are suddenly forced to be together 24/7. Some are dealing with the transition of having lots of free time, but no income coming in. People in quarantine are depressed, stressed out and angry. Couples are having different responses to the Pandemic, leading to conflict. In response to all the great questions and psychological issues that the virus is bringing up, I have decided to do a series of podcasts related to dealing with Covid-19. The first one is all about why people react in different ways to this virus.

How many of you are frustrated with the fact that some people aren’t taking Covid-19 seriously? We see people out at parks playing basketball, congregating on beaches or at parties. It makes our blood boil.

How many are in the other camp and think this thing has been blown way out of perspective? People die of the flu, 97% will be fine, and we can’t let the economy die. If people would just calm down and go back to normal, we will mostly be fine.

There are definitely two camps of people out there, and I’ve decided to do a series of podcasts to help people understand why there are so many different responses to Covid-19. This total change in our lives is tapping into so many psychological issues for each of us individually. It is stressful for everyone, but not for the same reasons.

In this week’s podcast, I address several of the major issues that determine how people respond to the Pandemic. These issues, though not a complete list, include irrational versus rational fears, fear hierarchy, narcissism versus altruism and developmental stage of maturity.

When a client comes into my office with fears and anxiety, the first thing I try to determine is whether or not the fear is rational or irrational. Rational fear is real and is adaptive. It’s the response your body has when you step into the street without noticing the approaching car. When the car honks and swerves, your fear response is there to keep you safe. Fear is a protective emotion that gives us crucial information. When a client is in the military and getting ready to redeploy, he or she has rational fears.

The problem is that sometimes fear becomes irrational. There are people with phobias of elevators and closed spaces. There are people who suffer from agoraphobia and will not leave their homes. This kind of fear is not adaptive. It can make your world smaller and can get in the way of living a full life.

What I have noticed, is that some people are interpreting Covid-19 as a rational fear. These are the folks staying home, listening to the doctors and trying to prevent the virus from spreading faster than our healthcare system can handle. The people who are out and about have determined that the virus is an irrational fear. They look more at the statistics that they personally are unlikely to die and that overall the death rate is low.

Another difference that people have with fears is what I call their fear hierarchy. If I fear death more strongly than anything else, I am likely to behave like people in the first group above. I will maintain social distance and wash my hands and stay home. If my strongest fear is poverty and unemployment, I will not be likely to behave like the first group. I am more likely to hope that everyone will just go back to normal so I’m not at risk of losing my job.

We all have fears. That is a fact. BUT, our fears are different and there are media groups and government differences that are demonstrating all these subtle nuances and promoting one specific stance. Some are promoting a view that says the virus is an irrational fear and what we should be fearing is the economy falling apart. Some are promoting the view that the virus is a rational fear and that minimizing death is what’s important.

In addition to our individual differences with fear, we also have personality differences. There is a whole spectrum of personality styles that go from altruism to narcissism. Youth is another factor. We need to remember that teenagers and 20 somethings are different developmentally. Young people are driven to be together. Biologically, they are looking for a mate and their hormones and millions of years of evolution make them want to be social! They tend to feel more invincible and this is affecting their decision making.

As you can see, from a psychological perspective, we are dealing with a host of variables that help determine what people choose to do and to believe. The real issue now is that one of these styles will save us and one will kill lots of people.

Here is my take on how to handle this. We have a unique situation right now. We are in a Pandemic with worldwide news available. We have the capability to learn from history that is only a few weeks old. We can see what happens if we prioritize the economy over death. Italy was late to enforce social distancing and staying home, and is dealing with a real nightmare. Italy chose initially to take the stance that overreacting was irrational. They are paying the price and the loss of life is severe and tragic. I am not at all blaming Italy. The virus was newer when it got there and they have lots of other difficult variables like people living in multigenerational families. They also have a dense, older population. But even if we have lots of compassion for Italy, we can also learn from them.

South Korea, by contrast, treated the virus as a rational and severe threat. They prioritized saving lives over the economy. They have tested constantly, quarantined and been strict with social distancing. They are not seeing the loss of life that Italy is experiencing. We can learn from their response how to get through this faster.

What I would promote is using what you learn about the different kinds of fear to help create meaningful dialogue with people who have fears about unemployment and poverty. We can listen to the people who think this is irrational. We can make greater gains by listening and understanding why people are scared. You don’t address a fear of poverty by discussing death. You talk about help that is coming from the government. You let people know you can help and that we are all in this together.

We can use a framework with youth that addresses their social needs. We can be creative about how they can use technology to stay in touch and break this down into small, day by day chunks for them. It is not helpful to talk about months of being alone with a teenager. Hell, I don’t even like that thought. What is more helpful is to say that a few days or weeks isn’t going to change their lives.

My last thought is a bit more sobering, for those who are still struggling with the desire to see this as no big deal. Narcissistic and sociopathic people are out there and they have great power. Think about the terrorists on 9/11 and how they changed air travel security for the whole world, forever. Think about the man who poisoned some Tylenol pills in a store and changed the way all pills are packaged forever. Evil is more powerful than good. We only exist because good outnumbers evil.

I saw people at the store yesterday coughing and sick, defiant and without empathy right alongside people with their babies. I saw a video of a guy licking a whole row of shampoo as if to say it was his prerogative to do whatever he wants with his germs. I have seen pictures of people posing in front of hundreds of rolls of toilet paper as if to demonstrate how smart they were to get there first. This is the kind of stuff that will take us down and make us sick. It will make our grandparents and parents get ill faster. If you stay home, you too will avoid these people who do not have any other interest than their own amusement. You will stay safe.

Lastly, I want to thank the first responders, nurses, doctors, grocery store workers and everyone else who is out there when they’d be safer at home. You are heroes. We will forever be grateful that you are the opposite of the people above; giving, caring and selfless. I am staying home for you!

You can listen to me talk through this in the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below or in the following places:

iTunes
Spotify
Google Play
Stitcher

Stay safe and sane!
Shannon Connery, Ph.D.

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