Negative Stress Responses in the Time of the Coronavirus

Negative coping can be harmful to individuals and their relationships.

Posted Apr 11, 2020

Source: Pixabay

The coronavirus pandemic brings with it uncertainties that are unprecedented in our times. The consequent stress within us—triggered by concerns we have about physical, financial, or relational security or other challenges—catapults us into coping in ways that can be positive or negative for our individual well-being and for our relationships. In my initial post in this series, I described one favorite personal approach, using structure to encourage and foster a whole range of positive strategies learned across the demands of a lifetime. In a second post, I addressed the sources of our unique responses when resilience is required. In future posts, I will explore several positive coping strategies in some depth. Today, let’s take a look at a few of the more destructive ways—to the individual and to relationships—in which people may respond during a period of stress.

Individual Negative Strategies

Addiction. The use of chemicals—whether from foods, alcohol, drugs, or one’s own adrenalin (for example, in gambling or playing video games)—is a common trap for those who manipulate their own biology to temporarily “turn off” the pain of emotions or thoughts they find distressing. The feelings can be anything—shame, fear, guilt, anger, grief, sadness, even joy if fear of happiness is part of an individual’s internalized scripts or beliefs; troublesome thoughts are often ruminations on what “might” happen in the future or repeat from the past. For whatever reasons, people who have become addicted have learned (although usually unconsciously) to disconnect from sensations of being outside their comfort zone. Quickly, the addictive behavior itself can become the goal and conscious problem-solving become difficult if not impossible.

Source: Pixabay

Panic buying and hoarding. As variants on the negative addictive behaviors referred to above, both shopping as a form of “therapy” and hoarding material possessions of any sort can be examples of negative coping. Whereas a chemical addiction may be centered around turning off unpleasant emotions or disturbing thoughts and feelings, compulsive purchasing and hoarding address the more specific fears of not being able to cope by providing for one’s own (or one’s family’s) needs or of the discomfort of deprivation. When your need to acquire or retain objects moves beyond the rational and causes damage to pocketbook or living space, you can notice the warning flag: the strategy does not work long-term.

Risk-taking. Denial is another coping strategy that can bring negative consequences. Pretending that a danger is not what it actually is can lead to exaggerated behaviors that one hopes will confirm a unique competence or privilege or invulnerability. Whether it is unprotected sex, ignoring speed limits and other rules of the road, or venturing into crowds with no protection from (or for) others, this risk-taking signals an unwillingness to confront the reality of all we do not control and, perhaps, of our connections to other living beings.

Avoidance. The opposite of risk-taking is a total withdrawal from information or from others who might force us to acknowledge a potentially dangerous situation. This avoidance goes beyond looking for calculated distractions, which can be a very positive coping strategy. It is a refusal to allow the truth of the situation into consciousness through contact with the media, other people, or sensory realities such as the sounds of sirens in the streets or the sight of hotels turned into field hospitals.

Aggression against self or others. Aggression against the self often takes the silent forms of numbness or attempts to confront numbness by causing pain in order to document sensation or identify its absence. These behaviors are damaging and useless beyond pointing to a defensive strategy gone destructive. Outbursts can also hurt people or property. 

Negative Coping Strategies That Hurt Others    

Violence: domestic and child abuse. As reports from around the world accrue, it seems clear the coronavirus pandemic is fueling an escalation of epic proportions in both domestic violence  and child abuse. As much as “home” can be a sanctuary for some, a refuge in challenging times, it can become a prison for others. Although some people can find appropriate outlets for their aggressive impulses during “normal” times, they can lose control when their stress passes a tipping point, lashing out at those who are the most available targets. Chemicals that lessen inhibitions can synergistically accelerate the deterioration of self-control, restraint, compassion. Unfortunately, the recent increases in personal violence detailed in the articles above (or even potential violence as suggested by the increase in gun sales) only point to the complexity of the issues. 

Source: Pixabay

Blame and projection. For people who cannot tolerate the notion that they have responsibilities, whether to themselves or others, blame is a common negative coping strategy. They identify others to whom they can attribute whatever they do not want to “own." When that blame is an accusation that the emotion one feels oneself is coming from the other person, it is called “projective identification,” attributing the feeling one is denying within one’s own body to someone else who is available. For example, a father feels hurt and furious, insists he is not angry, and soon afterward his son kicks a hole through the wall, expressing the hidden impulse. The father can then get angry at the son, seeing the rage as outside of himself and residing in the child.

Emotional Contagion. A related strategy is capitalizing on our human susceptibility to “emotional contagion," drawing another person (or more than one person) into the orb of our emotions energetically so that they are expressing the same judgment or feeling that we are thinking or feeling. Whether that experience is positive, such as glee, or negative, such as fear or rage or sadness, the originators can look to others and convince themselves that “everyone” would react the same way. “Normalizing” the emotion through this confirmation, the person who is feeling the feeling or thinking the thought is spared looking more deeply inside to sources and implications of their own experience. If “everyone” is laughing at it, how bad can it be? If “everyone” is furious, obviously I am not overreacting. If “we all” agree that the idea is foolish or brilliant ... You get the drift.

Consciousness is not always an easy way to react but it is always superior to behaviors that stem from negative coping patterns. Which negative strategies do you use most often? Which do you find most destructive? Tune in next week for comments on positive coping strategies.


Learning and entertainment

Quick smiles

  • Teens use electronic savvy and musical talent to create a four-minute video of "What the World Needs Now."
  • Each night between 8 and 11 pm, the Eiffel Tower lights up to say "thank you" (Merci) to all who mobilize in the crisis, and to urge others to "restez chez vous" or "stay at home."
  • One Day More: A British family sings the lament of lockdown.
  • Show tunes singalong with Marie's Crisis Cafe's pianist Franca Vercelloni. She brings her magic to fans through the internet.

Professional resources on coping with COVID-19:

Copyright 2020 Roni Beth Tower.