How to Make a Pandemic Even Scarier

Examining the dark side of extreme safety.

Posted Mar 25, 2020

Entire cities sheltering in place, panicked employees, unceremonious school closures, and empty playgrounds. Many extreme efforts to promote safety in the age of coronavirus have been lauded, but there is a dark side to safety-seeking. I know because I'm a neuropsychologist who specializes in the relationship between the brain, behavior, and anxiety.  

The best way to conceptualize any form of anxiety—from the common to the clinical—is as an aversion to the uncertain. There is a lot to be learned from the science of anxiety that can inform thinking about human behavior and, subsequently, leadership and policy initiatives in these uncertain times. Take, for example, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I regularly treat patients with a form of OCD known as health-related OCD. For these patients, they are consumed with fear that they will suffer some terrifying health-related fate: cancer, a neurodegenerative disease, some incurable viral infection. Obsessed with their portended ailments, they spend enormous amounts of time engaging in behaviors intended to keep them safe. As they routinely check for symptoms, attend medical visits, and read vigorously on the internet, it can appear that they are simply trying to be well-informed about their symptoms. But what they are really doing is seeking certainty. 

Extreme safety-seeking is always a myopic endeavor—and its real danger is that it demands people hyperattend to one aspect of their lives at the expense of all others. The paradox of anxiety is that the more precautionary measures people undertake to protect one area of their life, the more instability is created in others. Seeking extreme safety around physical health often leads to sharp declines in mental, social, and financial health.

Of course, concerns about the COVID-19 are distinct from an OCD diagnosis for obvious reasons. The parallel here is not the diagnosis but the brain’s reliable response to the unknown, particularly over the long-term. As a nation, we collectively find ourselves in deeply uncertain times. In an attempt to control what feels fundamentally uncontrollable, extreme safety measures abound. But what is the cost of all this safety-seeking aimed only at protecting our physical health? Businesses permanently closing, children abruptly left without any of the educational, social, and nutritional infrastructure that school provides, families devastated by stunning losses of income, individuals dealing with acute onset of mental health symptoms, rising gun sales, concerns about the sustainability of food supply chains, and entire cities shuttered in.  

As policymakers decide how to best respond to the pandemic, they have an unprecedented opportunity to take a broader and more effective approach to public health. Specifically, this means paying abundant attention to mental health, too. Policymakers would be wise to understand that while the present moment is pulling everyone’s attention toward physical health, the brain is not capable of indefinite hypervigilance.

While humans can tolerate short bursts of acute focus, this cocktail of chronic uncertainty—mixed with fears about mortality, information overload and contradictory messaging—is more than the brain can manage. In particular, growing social distancing with no clear timeline for reintegration will be particularly harsh on the mental health and, subsequently, the decision-making and emotion regulation abilities of an inherently social species. If social isolation persists, mental health symptoms will increase and the very behavioral control necessary to flatten the curve will falter. In this moment, swift provisions must be taken so people do not despair. 

This is a singular moment in our nation’s history, where a typically distracted nation is suddenly offering leadership its undivided attention. Many have demonstrated that they are paying keen attention and willing to act accordingly, even at great sacrifice to themselves. Our leaders must meet this willingness to serve with transparent direction and clear opportunity in ways that extend beyond telling people to simply staying put. Where social distancing is an evidence-based approach to slow the spread of COVID-19, scientific research also indicates that a sense of meaning and a sense of community are among the most protective factors for mental health.  

If this really is our generation’s World War II moment, then we need a full national effort that involves not just politicians, scientists, and business leaders, but the larger community, too. People must do something that allows them to feel like their lives have purpose. Determining how to best engage people in these uncertain times will require creativity and dynamism, something the United States has in abundance. In this digital age, where we can solve problems, create classrooms, invent things, and provide health care from a distance far greater than 6 feet, there is great potential to give people the connection and meaning necessary for sustainable and comprehensive well-being. 

In this moment, where we are anxious and isolated, we are looking to our leaders to walk us out of this dark moment and into the light—not just for the sake of our physical health, but for the protection of our own mental health and each other.