The collective psychology of Covid-19

PUBLIC HEALTH

Just like climate change or political tribalism, coronavirus asks us: Do we see ourselves as part of a “larger us”, a them-and-us or an atomised “I”?

Each of us is answering that question all the time right now. Do we hoard hand sanitiser or leave enough for others? Do we observe social distancing protocols or shrug and figure we’re young enough that the symptoms will be no big deal, so why worry? Do we think we’re all in this together or do we blame it on others (the Chinese)?

All this makes me think about what I’ve worked in the Collective Psychology Project (CPP) — in particular the importance of whether we respond to perceived threats by going into fight-or-flight or tend-and-befriend mode.

Fight-or-flight — or more accurately, fight/flight/freeze — is a natural reaction to threat or feelings of being overwhelmed. But it’s not particularly helpful in the face of a collective threat like Covid-19.

It’s a primal response, not a considered one. It focuses on the interests of the individual and not the collective. It reduces our capacity to empathise, and makes us more vulnerable to extremism or other hyper-tribal thinking. It leads to behaviour that will push us further apart.


With tend-and-befriend, on the other hand, we respond to danger by tending to ourselves and our families, and befriending others to build social networks of mutual assistance. It emphasises our interdependence with one another, and regards it as a source of strength rather than vulnerability.

So what can help us into tend-and-befriend and out of fight-or-flight? In our work at CPP, we highlight three factors in particular: agency, belonging and conscious self-awareness, or ABC for short.

• Agency is about whether we feel we have the power to shape our lives;

• Belonging is about whether we feel connected or alone; and

• Conscious self-awareness is about whether we have the presence of mind to be able to choose how to react to what happens in our lives rather than our amygdala (the part of our brain that deals with threats) choosing for us.

All three are relevant to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Let’s start with agency. This is what we’re really looking for when we fill our shopping trollies with enough to survive a zombie apocalypse. It gives us the sense of being able to do something to control our circumstances. (And while panic buying is clearly bad, some calm, steady stocking up is sensible in that it puts additional slack in the system)

But for the “larger us” version of agency, we need to go beyond stocking up our personal bunker and think about other people. Many people in our communities are going to have a hard time in the next few months. Eighty percent of those with Covid-19 will need to tough it out at home. Many more, such as those with weak immune systems and other health conditions, will also need to self-isolate.

There’s a lot we can do to help them without compromising social distancing, a measure to prevent the spread of Covid-19. This includes providing food, as well as buying medicines and household items and leaving it on the doorstep. Setting up systems for checking in on vulnerable people to make sure they’re okay.

Which brings us to belonging. Loneliness is terrible for anyone’s health at the best of times. Many people will experience social loneliness as a result of the measures in place to prevent Covid-19 contagion. Loneliness can cause physical, cognitive and mental health problems.

An article, titled “Social isolation: It could kill you”, in the American Psychological Association publication, said risks are heightened as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University.

When loneliness becomes chronic it can cause depression, poor sleep quality, cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity, according to Louise Hawkley, a senior research scientist at the University of Chicago, in the same article.

Now imagine being an older person living alone and finding that not only are the grandchildren off limits for the next three months, but so are the “weak ties” that constitute your day-to-day social contact: the doctor or nurse, the postman, the person at the supermarket checkout.

Again, we can do a lot to allay this — and the boredom, anxiety, and grief that all of us may be about to face — by coming together. Now, before the tsunami hits, is exactly the right time to be reaching out to our neighbours, whether by email or with fliers or a poster on a lamp post, to set up a street level WhatsApp or Facebook group.

A month from now, when we’re at the peak, we may find that to be an incredibly valuable source of belonging: a platform to keep us sane, and to create a sense of shared identity that nurtures our sense of rootedness in the places where we live even when we can’t go out into them.

And then there’s conscious self-awareness — the one that tips the balance between fight-or-flight and tend-and-befriend. This is a deeply weird time. It’s one of those moments — like 9/11 or the fall of the Berlin Wall — when our master narrative is collapsing. Suddenly everything is uncertain. With no story to guide us, we zone out on maths. “Pantry stocks math. Alcohol percentage math. Infection risk math. Toilet paper math,” to quote Venkatesh Rao on the blog ribbonfarm.com.

Amid such uncertainty, with no guiding story to fall back on, we’re prone to another kind of contagion besides the virus itself: infection with other people’s mental and emotional states. As market crashes show, panic can quickly ripple through our collective central nervous system. We can find (as I did) that a three-hour Twitter information binge can leave you feeling depressed and edgy rather than informed and prepared.

So even as we care for others — and, in doing so, increase our own sense of agency and belonging — we need to look after ourselves. Everyone’s version of self-care is different. It might mean meditation, time in nature, eating healthily, reading Stoic philosophy or a Harry Potter novel, yoga, favourite music and looking at the stars.

But don’t zone out on the news all day. Curate your social media feed to mute haters and panic spreaders.

We all need to manage our mental and emotional states not just for our own wellbeing, but also because our inner states end up affecting others around us. That’s the whole point about collective psychology: the state of the world affects our states of mind, and our states of mind affect the world. Coronavirus brings that fact into sharp relief. We all need to own this challenge.

This is an edited version of the article published by Open Democracy via Global Dashboard


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