16 March 2020
There seems to be a real disconnect between people’s anxiety about health and their capacity to think or act.
Perfectly intelligent people can be paralysed by panic: we know this in theory, but watching it in friends or neighbours is striking.
‘How can she come so close up to me and practically breathe in my face and then tell me her boss has been showing all the signs of Covid-19 and refusing to go home, before becoming ill at the weekend? She must know she is probably infectious already herself! And she says how worried she is about her uncle, who had a heart attack last year already, but she went to see him – after knowing her boss had got ill? And she’s going in to work tomorrow!’ (This is a real example from a friend who lives abroad.)
Does it help to understand?
What can we understand?
Our capacity to ‘split’; our minds, thoughts, feelings is enormous; at times we need it to enable ourselves to function at all. If anxiety is too strong we can split it off from our normal functioning. This enables us to go about our daily lives – but without awareness of a danger which might be real or might be simply a figment of our imagination. Unless we spend time thinking about it, we can keep it in the category of unreality – like a dream or even a nightmare – in order to avoid it disturbing us during the day. The initial thinking about the consequences of Covid-19 may seem so enormous that we just cut it off ; but this leaves us without the capacity to recognise the link between the virus and our own behaviour. The fear is that thinking about it would destroy our capacity to act at all; the reality is that splitting off the fear leaves us without the information (and the feelings) which we need to act sensibly.
(It is feelings which enable us to make decisions; cutting off our feelings of anxiety, or misdirecting them, prevents us from making good judgements.)
Unfortunately, this capacity to split is going to spread the virus unless we can wake ourselves up and make the links we need. We need to know whether it is a figment of our imagination, whether we are just being paranoid if we take it seriously. Are we really putting ourselves and others at risk – possibly of death? The risk may be so high that normal risk assessment would require only a small chance of it happening to imply that we should take action.
Perhaps just being in close contact with a boss who gets ill is not sufficient reason to self-isolate? Information is not all we need; we also need criteria for decision making. For some people, going to work may feel safer than staying at home with an abusive partner – or facing a fear that they will kill themselves or someone else.
We also need to allow ourselves to feel and see the real losses ahead, and the uncertainty. To hope for the best while preparing for the worst: or decide to cross the bridges as we come to them; to take one day at a time, recognising when we have to make unpalatable decisions. But we need to support each other in this. Anxiety reduces when you feel supported, listened to, allowed to express fears and to share thoughts. And when anxiety is reduced, people can think again; they split less and find solutions they did not know existed.