The Coronavirus in Psychotherapy

What a shared human experience can reveal about ourselves.

Posted Mar 09, 2020

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Source: Shutterstock

If you are like me, then right about now you feel fully (and justifiably) alert and preoccupied with the coronavirus. People are now consuming the news faster than the virus can travel, quickly turning around to bombard everyone one we know with that same information, even though we may be upsetting some of those very good people.

But you and me, we soldier on, spreading the news with good reason and good intentions. I mean, just look at what’s going on out there! So we feel justified sending frequent COVID-19 updates, some in ALL CAPS with links and hashtags like #preparedontpanic and #touchnofaces, to friends, family, and coworkers. Without question, when the time comes (for what, I don’t exactly know), no one will be calling me unprepared.

You may think me a bit hypervigilant, although I prefer the word visionary, but I don’t think I’m alone in my anxiety here. In fact, I am quite certain that some of you also left your coworkers just last night using some version of the phrase, “Hang in there, we are all going to get through this together,” or something similarly communal. Truthfully, given how I have responded to past national crises (for instance, volunteering to go to NYC three days after 9/11 to help there), no one who knows me will be surprised that I have sprung into action at this time. It’s what I do.

That said, I have noted a few people responding oddly to my newfound, strongly expressed concern for the welfare of their elderly parents, who I’ve never met. But someone needs to be looking out for those old folks in Boise, don’t you think? Better be concerned now than not be able to do something later, right?

This all makes perfect sense to me because I’ve read everything about the coronavirus. I subscribe to the daily CDC and NYT communications. I lived through AIDS and I know what’s coming and it’s not going to be good. So why do my friends and loved ones keep telling me to chill out?

Admittedly, I’ve been called anxious on more than one occasion, and yes, I do tend toward neuroses and compulsivity. But I’ve gotta tell you, whether you want to hear it or not, that this time I really do think the sky is about to fall. More than usual, anyway. Thus, I’m (mildly for me) obsessing about that fact. Sure, I still occasionally find myself doubting the big deal that this phenomenon is or will become, but then I reassure myself that hypervigilance may be one of the genetic traits that helped my DNA survive and thrive into the 21st century. Who am I to question such innate survival skills now?

Using the aforementioned intellectual justification for my obsessions, I scour the news for legitimate COVID-19 updates. And I’ve peppered an MD or three with questions about virus transmission, infection rates, and potential mortality, tossing in facts I’ve gathered from South Korea, Iran, China, Italy, and my home state of California. I just can’t stop wondering and discussing how this will play out my hometown, and for those I love around the globe.

Though I am, as stated earlier, anxious by nature, I rarely remain uncomfortably anxious for very long because my form of anxiety tends to quickly translate itself into action. Thus, I’ve spent well over a week actively avoiding my out-of-control fears by stocking up on dried soup, milk, cereal, prescriptions, and enough cold/flu medication to pretty much decongest everyone I’ve ever met.

And just so I don’t feel too alone, I’m hoping that at least a few among you are also occasionally and fondly glancing at your newly acquired stockpiles of virus survival gear with a feeling of self-satisfied completion. For me, looking over at that now neatly organized pile of dried fruit, stove stop stews, and batteries leaves me feeling much as I do when conducting a final review of the annual December holiday gifts—that time when all the shopping is over and the only things left to do are wrap and wait.

As I play out my neurosis for all of you to see here, I ask you to consider the fact that any universally shared human tragedy presents each of us with an opportunity for deep psychological reflection, the obvious question here being, “How do I act and what do I do when potential crisis looms on my horizon?” In my case, I am unsurprised to see myself becoming aware and informed, and then working to alert others (even when they’re not listening or even interested).

You see, when I was very small, my Bipolar mother’s behavior was profoundly unpredictably and occasionally psychotic. So I learned early and well to identify the first signs of trouble (on mom’s face) as high-alert, time to prepare and do anything possible to avert disaster. Then call out to the family for help. That unconscious emotional job learned early in life is something I see playing out into this crisis. I scan the horizon for danger, I prepare, and I alert others, even if they don’t want to hear what I have to say.

And so I bring this question to you. Can you identify, by your thoughts, words, and actions over the past few weeks, who you become when a potential crisis is looming? What can you learn about how you have (or have not) responded to the COVID-19 information we are all getting? Is your response conscious? Is it useful? As you engage in this process of self-reflection, I urge you to not judge yourself. Simply be curious, observe, and look for things you might do that will make it easier to cope with this and future challenges.

What comes next with the coronavirus, no one knows. In the end, I may simply be anxious and hypervigilant here, even attention-seeking. If so, I’m certain that some of my friends and family and readers will rib me about it. And right or wrong, I want you to look up and pay attention to what’s happening. Look up not to panic, but to be informed. Look up not to fear, but to prepare and have faith in your well-thought-out choices to come.

If I’m wrong about the coronavirus, and I hope that I am, I’m glad to take that in stride and to graciously accept all the good fun you might make of me. But if I’m not wrong, then all of us will have a lot more to be concerned about than a wounded ego. In truth, I wish you no worry and no panic, but a clear head with preparations made for whatever may come next.