As recently reported in a story from The New York Times, a 59-year old California man, gravely ill with liver disease, had waited weeks for news of an available transplant as his health declined. Finally, he got the lifesaving news his family had been hoping for. A liver was available for him. As reported by Katie Hafner, he began to dress to drive to San Francisco for the scheduled surgery. Then panic set in.
“Within five minutes after hanging up, he started hyperventilating,” his wife told the Times. “He kept saying: ‘I’m going to get Covid, and then I’m going to die. And if I die, I want my family there.’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
The wife could not dissuade him. The surgery to save his life from a condition sure to take it was canceled due to a fear of a virus he only might contract.
Sadly, in the world we now live in, such irrational decisions are no longer an anomaly. “In many places, patients with cancer, heart disease and strokes, among others, are delaying or forgoing critical procedures that could keep them alive,” Hafner writes. “And as the virus reignites in pockets of the country, people are ignoring symptoms altogether, afraid to set foot in emergency rooms or even doctors’ offices.”
As mental health experts explained to the Times, what is happening may seem irrational, but the kind of anxiety and uncertainty we are all now experiencing affects the part of the brain involved in thinking and planning for the future — a future that is now very much uncertain.
Events of the past weeks have shown that recovery from the coronavirus pandemic at present remains out of grasp. Worse yet, it has exposed how damaged and hurting we all are in so many ways. Our head space seems out of alignment. Where is the coordinated clinical effort to confront this residual malady and the irrational decisions that anxiety and uncertainty are bringing on?
“If you have anxiety and then you exacerbate that by watching the news and reading social media, that’s where you get panicked,” Dr. Jud Brewer, a psychiatrist and behavioral neuroscientist at Brown University, told the Times. “And the rational, thinking parts of the brain stop functioning well when we’re panicked.”
“People are quick to believe things are falling apart and slow to believe things are getting better,” writes Ed O’Brien, an associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, in a recent opinion piece shared by Yahoo News.
“A powerful psychological principle is negativity dominance,” he adds. “The idea that negative experiences pack more mental punch than equivalent positive experiences. … Bad news spreads faster than good news. There exist more words in the English language to describe negative emotions than positive emotions. Evidence like this has been found in laboratory experiments since the 1940s.”
This is “why the current push to return to normal is easier said than done,” he says. “Psychologically, recoveries move slow and take time, even in response to genuine improvement. … It’s tempting to assume that we’re all chomping at the bit to break cabin fever, that everyone will burst with activity at the first chance of normalcy. But as recent reports of light foot traffic reveal, a return to normal ‘out there’ isn’t going to accompany an equivalent return to normal in how (we) feel.”
“The cascading reactions to the virus beget enough ambiguity and urgency to at once compel and confound our attentions,” writes Noam Shpancer in Psychology Today.
David Robson is the author of “The Intelligence Trap,” a study of the psychology of our most common reasoning errors as well as strategies to improve decision making. “Rarely has the threat of disease occupied so much of our thinking. … This constant bombardment can result in heightened anxiety, with immediate effects on our mental health. … The constant feeling of threat may have other, more insidious, effects on our psychology,” he recently explained to BBC. For one, we become less forgiving, he writes.
A core problem “as people start reopening their lives,” says Julia Marcus, a professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, is that “they’re hearing little practical guidance about the dilemmas they encounter.”
“This month, the CDC finally released guidance for businesses, schools, child-care facilities, and other entities on when and how to safely reopen,” she writes in The Atlantic. “But if you’re one of the many Americans who’s trying to figure out how to reopen your life, you’re not likely to find answers in those 60 pages. What’s the safest way for your family to start socializing with other households? How can you begin seeing friends or dating again while still minimizing your risk of contracting or transmitting the coronavirus?”
“If coronavirus risk behavior follows the pattern of other health conditions, people who attempt to deny themselves any human contact outside of their household for months on end may be more likely to abandon risk-reduction strategies entirely,” she writes. “Such a scenario could have dire consequences.”
“Anxiety is a strange beast,” writes Judson Brewer, an associate professor at Brown University, in an opinion piece in The New York Times. “As a psychiatrist, I have learned that anxiety and its close cousin, panic, are both born from fear. … When we can’t control our anxiety, that emotional fever spikes into panic. … Overwhelmed by uncertainty and fear of the future, the rational parts of our brains go offline.” This uncertainty “spreads anxiety through social contagion.”
“Understanding these simple learning mechanisms will help all of us ‘keep calm and carry on,'” he writes. My thoughts? If only we were listening and learning.