In the span of just a few days our society has become completely unmoored, panic-stricken, and obsessed with fear. We check and recheck social media and news feeds that inundate and overwhelm us with information about COVID-19 (much of which is neither helpful nor accurate). Supermarket lines are out the door as we stockpile household goods and supplies.
Mass equity selloffs have wrought more havoc on the markets than we’ve seen since 1987. In decades past, such extreme responses did not occur even during times of war. It’s not news that Americans tend to run anxious. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 20 percent of adults have an anxiety disorder each year. But it is novel to realize how vulnerable we are to outright madness.
Psychological science has identified a clear root to such extreme responses: We cannot tolerate situations that are uncontrollable and uncertain. Indeed, we cannot control nor predict what will happen next with COVID-19. In reality, self-quarantine and social distancing can slow, but not stop, viral contagion. The only truly effective solution is that which Bill Gates outlined in late February in the New England Journal of Medicine: International system-wide changes to facilitate government and industry–partnered anti-pandemic efforts to efficiently develop and deliver billions of vaccine and antiviral doses within months of pathogen discovery. But, let’s be realistic that COVID-19 and perhaps even the next pandemic will come and go long before such recommendations are likely to go into effect.
As such, we face a critical juncture from an emotional and behavioral perspective. We can pretend that things were once certain and controllable and try to cope with the immediate threat of COVID-19, or we can step back and recognize that certainty was nothing but an illusion all along. The reality is that we have been vulnerable to a viral outbreak for decades. It may not be pleasant to think about, but we are similarly vulnerable to chemical or nuclear terrorism, hostile military invasion, mass declines in the national food supply, absolute currency devaluation, sudden rising sea levels, radiation due to astronomical events, and economic collapse. In truth, it’s miraculous that such events don’t occur more frequently.
Ironically, once we accept the reality that our sense of certainty and control is an illusion—once we understand and appreciate our inherent vulnerability—we emerge with the inner strength to face crises with greater equanimity. Conversely, behaviors that give us a false sense of security not only exacerbate our anxiety, but actually make the situation worse since they have negative consequences for our society as a whole.
For example, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned that widespread use of face masks could actually increase the spread of the virus. More significantly, if market fears and downward trends continue, they could ultimately lead to national if not global recession, creating greater vulnerability to many of the catastrophic scenarios mentioned above. Along these lines, we must also consider that psychological concerns are the leading cause of disability overall, and the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 10–34. There is no question in my mind that our emotional and behavioral responses at the present time are creating more damage than COVID-19.
The current crisis calls upon us to accept that there are limits to what we can know and control. The nature of being human is that we are not invincible or impervious to risk. It is time to practice humility and make peace with that simple fact. Practically speaking, I am encouraging all of my patients these days to envision what it would be like for them to become infected with COVID-19. Getting to a place of acceptance and mental preparedness is far more psychologically adaptive than trying to avoid something in our minds that we ultimately cannot control.
We also need to be more flexible and embrace uncertainty. We need to consider that the virus may spread rampantly. National, regional and even local travel may become restricted. The situation may last for months. It may seem hard to stay sane when so much is unknown, but I would argue that COVID-19 presents a tremendous opportunity to build our emotional resilience. The current crisis calls upon all of us to recognize and embrace the fact that nothing was ever certain or clear. In fact, human beings don’t need to control or know anything with certainty. We just need to do our best and live in the moment. Once we do, we will have the inner strength we need to face the current challenge.