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Who Me? Worried I’ll Get the Virus?

Patterns of responding to anxiety about COVID-19 based on your personality.

By Kristen Beesley, Ph.D.

Source: OrnaW/Pixabay
Source: OrnaW/Pixabay

In today’s current climate of uncertainty—a novel virus, quarantine, conflicts in leadership, and many unknowns—one would be hard-pressed to find someone not experiencing some discomfort. This pandemic has a large impact on our lives, both physical and psychological, yet there are great differences in how people understand and process these events.

While anxiety gets a bad rap, it’s actually a useful emotion for assessing danger and responding accordingly. Freud termed the response to an impending threat, “signal anxiety.” Signaling to the person that a traumatic situation is imminent, the mind can then protect itself from the feelings (fear, helplessness, anger, sadness, etc.) that will be experienced as a result. Sometimes the threat is outward and apparent. At other times it’s called, “psychic trauma,” meaning it is being stirred up inside and not linked with actual danger from the outside. The protections minds employ are called defense mechanisms and everyone uses an assortment of them (mostly without conscious awareness) depending on their personalities.

When it is working well, this system keeps us at some distance from our anxious thoughts and feelings, but not entirely cut off from them. This helps us to function well enough, remaining not too overwhelmed, and helps us make good decisions and stay mindfully present in reality. When these defenses are in overdrive (signaling we need too much protection), we can respond to anxiety in a rigid or automatic manner, leaving little room for consideration of explanations other than the one we have come to. However, if and when your anxiety response is not working well enough, you may experience symptoms of overt anxiety, including generalized anxiety, panic, phobias, or obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors.

Here are a few common reactions to the pandemic and its effects I’ve heard in the past few weeks:

1. Sublimation

“I am surprised, but I really feel I am doing really well with all of this. I am getting a lot done around the house.”

This person is channeling helpless and anxious feelings into something they feel good about that is within their control. Another person using sublimation may volunteer to bring food to the elderly or make masks for front line workers. This unconscious response to trauma can serve people well if they use it to manage their more intense feelings, making them more manageable as they feel less helpless or threatened.

2. Isolation of Affect

“I’m not feeling much of anything at all. I’m often tired and blah. I’m not particularly worried, though.”

Another way to deal with anxiety is to cut off the emotional response to the situation triggering the anxiety. There are times when this helps manage tough situations, say in an emergency. However, when used too frequently and pervasively, thinking and rational responses are overvalued and feelings undervalued. Furthermore, when relying too heavily on this method of coping, there is a tendency to pursue other methods such as substance use, binge eating, and over-exercising to keep painful feeling states at bay.

3. Denial

“When are we going to get back to normal? I don’t understand why everyone is obsessed with talking about this virus!”

For this person, the emotional energy expended to manage the incoming signal threat of danger is managed by denial. If they don’t consider the seriousness of the pandemic, they can keep worries about it well hidden. In a more problematic use of denial, we see individuals who deny the threat of illness, believe they could never contract the virus, or disregard scientific and factual information about the disease’s spread. We tend to feel safer if we can assert something with certainty, and a rigid use of denial lends itself to denying important aspects of this disease and its effects in order to narrow it down to something absolute.

4. Displacement

“I feel so terrible. I can’t stop yelling at my wife for the smallest things. I don’t know why I am so angry.”

Instead of actively recognizing one’s helplessness about the current state of affairs and its consequences, attention is directed toward something or someone else. Family members in close proximity are often targets. Sometimes, the opposite effect will occur and anger is directed toward government leaders and employers become the recipient of one’s global frustrations.

Try to Observe Your Responses and Identify Patterns

The way our individual personalities are structured determines how we respond to anxiety. When working well, we should not feel overwhelming anxiety or panic in response to this current global trauma, but we also won’t be devoid of feelings, either. This allows for adaptive functioning and the capacity to develop thoughtful strategies about how we will manage the next re-entry phase and the possibility of a second wave.

Your pattern of response is an important part of your personality. Take inventory of the defenses you use and examine how reflexively you may rely on them when responding to stressful events. Because these patterns tend to be ingrained, oftentimes defensive strategies aren’t immediately apparent to us. Examining and understanding these strategies helps builds insight which can improve your response to anxiety and your decision making when anxious.

About the author: Kristen Beesley, Ph.D., is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in Metro Detroit. She sees patients in intensive psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, with a special interest in life transitions and female psychology.