Managing Disorientation in a Pandemic
The world-wide coronavirus outbreak is forcing millions of people to drastically change their ways of life. Even under the best-case scenario, our lives will be altered. The challenges are overwhelming, growing more so by the day. But we must not experience these challenges as overwhelming, or we risk making decisions that will make the situation much, much worse. We know from motivation research that when the gap between a challenge and our perceived ability to deal with that challenge is too great, we can become paralyzed with anxiety, and prone to making impulsive, short-term, self-destructive choices.
Here’s how to manage the disorientation and channel it in constructive ways:
First, acknowledge the challenge. Accept that this pandemic threatens our capacity to thrive. Ignoring or denying the seriousness of the threat is a sign of what psychologists call “loss aversion,” the desire to protect one’s own identity and way of life. Retreating to our comfort zones, looking for ways to deny the evidence and cling to the status quo, will make effective coping even less likely when the reality finally sinks in.
Second, acknowledge that old ways of thinking about the problem aren’t likely to work. Living through a pandemic like this is a completely new experience for all of us. Still, we’re tempted to resort to technical, tried-and-true solutions. Some of these, such as social distancing, are critical and necessary, of course. But they are also of limited effectiveness, as we’ve seen. Social distancing only works if the challenge is acknowledged by all. Furthermore, any massive shift in social interaction will have vast and unpredictable consequences over the long term. As tempting as it might be to hope that existing perspectives will see us through, addressing the multiple challenges of this pandemic will be effective only through changes in our priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties.
Third, despite all of this, recognize that disorientation can be a productive force — but only when people have not withdrawn and hunkered down. Creative thinking isn’t very useful if it isn’t shared and discussed. Thus, a critical first step is to foster social interaction and interdependency, in ways that compensate for physical distancing. Dealing with an adaptive challenge like this will require shifting our online culture away from bubbles of agreement to streams of conversation that welcome a diversity of ideas, honest discussion, and yes, constructive conflict. Dialogue can have great power under these conditions, as it invites participants to try on perspectives other than their own.
Fourth, monitor your own disorientation level. Get to an emotional space that I call “constructive disorientation,” a space just beyond our comfort zone that motivates us to explore new ways of thinking and being. While uncomfortable, this level of disorientation is necessary for us to see our environment and our relationship with it in new ways. We couldn’t survive as a species without it.
Maintaining constructive disorientation at times like this requires three complementary strategies:
Practice alternative self-talk. Instead of feeling powerless to do anything about what is happening, reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s hapless character in Modern Times, we need to have the sense that what we do, we do voluntarily, under own volition, and not completely under external control. So instead of thinking, “I’m trapped at home,” focus instead on your safety and the opportunities to develop deeper relationships with loved ones. Instead of thinking, “OMG, I’m going to run out of things I need,” tell yourself that basic necessities, such as access to health care, groceries and pharmacies, are still available.
Focus less on what you can’t do and more on what you can do. An important way of combatting paralyzing disorientation is to shift your thinking to what you have control over. This increases what psychologists have called “self-efficacy,” that is, one’s sense of effectiveness in the world. A spirit of mindfulness, focusing on the present and here-and-now rather than ruminating about the past or fretting about the future, will help, as will finding new ways of maintaining and deepening important relationships, or embarking on that long-delayed project at home.
Consider how crisis can be turned into opportunity. Sure, the pandemic is preventing us from doing what is important to us. But the disorientation created by the crisis gives us an opportunity for some fresh thinking about old assumptions. Being forced to work from home, for example, can lead to some new ways of thinking about productivity, and what the appropriate balance might be between virtual and face-to-face environments. Forcing parents to spend 24/7 with the kids, as exhausting and frustrating as this may be, can lead to a re-appraisal of family relationships, parenting roles, and the limits of a life spent staring at a computer screen or a cell phone.
I understand fully the reaction of readers who have lost their jobs and are thinking, “all well and good for you maybe, but I need to figure out how to put food on the table.” I get it. Subsistence comes first. But I hope the day will come, sooner rather than later, when you’re able to consider what some new version of “normal” might look like.
The world is a scary place right now, but we’ve seen worse and pulled through. Using the best knowledge available to mitigate the spread of the virus and to treat its victims is the immediate, necessary step. Our collective disorientation as a society, however, will linger well beyond the biological threat, requiring long-term strategies to keep our creative energies alive and the disorientation constructive.