Why Does a Crisis Make Us Want to Connect and Be Kinder?

Five ways a crisis changes us, according to experts.

Posted Mar 27, 2020

Odds are that now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re getting texts or calls from family and friends who rarely, if ever, check in. Or, perhaps you're the one contacting loved ones with more frequency. Either way, people seem to be reaching out more now than they did during ordinary circumstances.

Of course, today’s times are certainly anything but ordinary, a significant factor behind the surge in communication and kindness. What is it about a crisis, be it the current pandemic, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, massive fires, and other devastating events, that brings people together?

Crises Bring Out Our Primal Need for Connection

The bottom line is that we’re getting down to the survival level in life, and with that emerges a deep desire to connect with and help others. So says Dr. Edward (Ned) Hallowell, M.D., board-certified child/adult psychiatrist, bestselling author, and thought leader who founded the Hallowell Centers. “Fortunately, rather than thinking only of ourselves in such times, we think about each other,” he explains. “People tap into these reservoirs of generosity; a tremendous wellspring of love emerges.” Whether people are connecting with family more frequently or putting their lives on the line, Hallowell says that crises often tap into a basic part of our human nature that pushes selfish desires by the wayside. 

Indeed, Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., an author and psychotherapist in Tampa, Florida, says that “it’s a natural, primal tendency to want to reconnect with loved ones during a crisis.” She explains that it’s completely normal to think of, and reach out to, loved ones during challenging, unknown times. “We want to be with our people, especially the ones you feel a sense of normalcy from,” she adds. “Crises make us realize how vulnerable we are, so connecting helps ease this while also making us feel more in control of the situation.”

5 Ways a Crisis Changes Us

More Life Contemplation

These are times of stocking up on canned tuna and toilet paper, handwashing like never before, and hearing about cornonavirus cases that are growing daily. That’s our focus, forcing what used to occupy our thoughts and life goals to shift. “A lot of us are reflecting about where our lives are going and what we want to accomplish,” says Sarkis, who is also a Psychology Today blogger.

Acts of Heroism

Crises often bring out an intense drive to make sure others are well. “A deeper part of us emerges when survival is on the line,” says Hallowell. “When you look at other crises through the years, what you see emerge time after time is the desire to help others. People are more willing to put their own lives on the line to do so. It’s flat-out heroism.”

Letting the Small Stuff Go

Annoyed by a neighbor’s unsightly fence? How about that colleague who chews too loud?  When it comes to the small stuff, we’re more inclined to hold off on arguing about it during a crisis. “People are letting go of things,” says Sarkis. Why? She says that we’re bonded by the common thread of having something in common with everyone now that we didn’t before. “We’re all scared on some level and adapting to a new normal, so letting go of some of the things that pushed us apart before is becoming more common.”

Opening Up Conversations about Death

Many people are dying from COVID-19. Some are dying alone, something which Sarkis says really hones in on one of humanity’s greatest fears. Hearing of suffering on such a grand scale is making people talk more openly about death though, she explains, noting that it’s an important topic that is often addressed with hesitation in the Western culture. But now, more people are having conversations about life and death.

Releasing Anger When People “Suddenly” Reach Out

If you’re annoyed because someone who rarely texts you is suddenly checking in, Hallowell has some advice: don’t be angry about that. Rather than think, “They never call me. But now that they’re anxious because of this crisis, all of a sudden they’re concerned about me,” he suggests finding the silver lining. “Better to reach out than not,” he says, adding that if it takes a crisis to make communication happen, then view it as something positive. He encourages others not to dismiss caring actions just because they weren’t previously exhibited. Then, he suggests people “build on it and make it last.”

Without a doubt, a crisis greatly alters our thoughts and actions. Both Sarkis and Hallowell emphasize that fluctuations in our emotions and routines are normal during such times. Our need for connection surges and more people exhibit increased levels of kindness when faced with a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re basic human instincts that provide a “we’re in this together” sense of comfort and hope.