It’s Not What You Need To Know, It’s What You Can Handle

Let your attachment style guide you to surviving this pandemic.

Posted Mar 23, 2020

Every morning I wake up to an alert warning me of my impending death.

Well, that’s not actually what the news is saying, but it seems to be what they’re implying.

“What You Need To Know About The Coronavirus!” my phone screams at me.

What I need to know? What about what I want to know? What about what I can handle? What about what will be helpful?

There is a fine line between knowledge and terror, especially when it is my job to be the calm, rational presence for my two young children who are going stir-crazy right along with me.

The 24-hour news cycle and the increase in social media platforms have brainwashed us into thinking that all information is good information. But psychopharmacology tells us that there is no one medication that effectively treats every person, and years of research on the development of antibiotics show clear evidence that some people have fewer negative side effects from one medication versus another.

So, why are we being forced to believe that the more information we have, the better?

This morning I woke up to a text from a Mom’s Group containing a detailed map of our region with the number of confirmed cases. Did I need to know this? Did I want to? Could I handle this?

The question we all need to ask ourselves in the weeks and months that follow is this: Is the information that is being distributed by the media something I need to know in order to stay safe and protect my loved ones? Or is this information so frightening that it might inhibit my ability to function in a way that negatively impacts myself, my family, and my community?

As early as the 1950s, Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby began to develop attachment theory as a way to understand the relationship between infants and their caregivers; in later years, numerous researchers attempted to expand the theory to explore how attachment styles might apply to adult interpersonal relationships. They identified four different attachment styles that started with the relationship with the caregiver but extend throughout adulthood. 

Is it possible that attachment theory – in particular understanding our own attachment style – might also help us to understand how we deal with times of crises, and how we can best care for ourselves when it comes to exposure to information and misinformation?

A secure attachment sounds a bit like a unicorn: a secure view of yourself and a secure view of others, and how others view you. Those with secure attachment find it easy to be close to and trust other people and feel equally comfortable with independence and intimacy. Nearly perfect people, with perfectly healthy relationships. Imagine the guy you want to date and the woman you want to be.

If you are a securely attached unicorn, you can probably take in all news, all information, and feel confident that we will get through this. Feel confident that the end is either near or not so bad as everyone is making it out to be. That map of confirmed cases and statistics that keep rising – you’re okay with that, and by all means, expose yourself to anything you see fit. You can handle it.

But keep in mind that not everyone can.

People with Anxious-Preoccupied attachment have a negative view of themselves and a positive view of others. They feel comfortable when they are with their loved ones, but believe that they are forgotten when they are alone. For these people, love is fleeting, temporary, and unpredictable. Life can be scary without a security blanket around.

If this sounds like you, be aware that the comfort you feel watching the nightly news with your loved ones will not necessarily be the way you feel when you are alone with your own thoughts as you are trying to sleep.

Consume with caution. Consume in small bites. Consume with the awareness that not everything you hear or read is actual truth to be feared.

Dismissive-avoidant people are the Debbie Downers of the world. Life stinks. People whose attachment style is dismissive-avoidant don’t want people, don’t need people, and are quite quick to reject others before they have a chance to be rejected themselves.

Sounds like fun, right?

These are the people who may suffer most during this pandemic. The very idea of reaching out to a neighbor for support – albeit from an adequate social distance – is far more frightening than the plague itself.

If this sounds like you, this is your time to break free from the patterns your parents (accidentally) taught you and to re-connect with humanity. It sounds difficult. It sounds impossible. But you can do it. Listen to news sparingly, focusing only on updates that are helpful to keep you safe and updates that remind you that humanity still exists. Focus on the charities, the donations, the people who help their elderly neighbors by shopping for them, so that the elderly are not unnecessarily exposed. Focus on the Facebook groups that aim to provide breakfast and lunch to kids who are normally subsidized by school and government budgets.

Fearful/unresolved attachment styles apply to people who have a history of trauma, abuse, severe anxiety, severe depression, and often some sort of PTSD. These people tend to be distrustful and are uncomfortable expressing affection.

The irony is that people with fearful/unresolved attachment styles should be our leaders in times like this because they are healthy skeptics, based on previous traumatic experiences. Unfortunately, they don’t trust themselves to lead, and we have spent years listening to their dubious doubts, so we probably wouldn’t be eager to follow. They sense danger when there is danger, and use caution when unconscious signals warrant it.

Does this sound like you?

I have mixed advice for you, in large part because I have mixed feelings about the whole “trigger warning” thing.

Cognitive Behavioral Psychology teaches us that phobias (fears) are formed through learning. For example, if a dog bites you when you are a child, you may learn to fear dogs. So, you avoid dogs. And you don’t get bitten. Your brain believes that you are safe because you avoid dogs. Avoidance, therefore, reinforces your fear that dogs are dangerous. And so, you continue to avoid dogs in order to stay safe. Given what we know about phobias, the idea of issuing a “trigger warning” has always seemed contradictory to me.

Still, in times of crisis, freaking yourself out seems like a poor decision, so I suggest that those with dismissive-avoidant attachment follow all breaking news updates with a gentle hand. Something heard from a friend of a friend, or an expert someone knows, or a fool at a cocktail party – that should all be taken in stride. And if your gut says differently – perhaps you have subconsciously learned something from a traumatic experience.     

And as for me?

My attachment style falls somewhere between anxious-preoccupied and fearful/unresolved. As long as I continue to maintain the skepticism of a scientist, I am open to information and statistics. But I am not going out of my way to obtain extra news coverage. I have a history of anxiety issues and I am grateful for the therapy and medication that has helped me to get to a point where I can feel anxious and remain calm enough to distinguish my feelings from scientific facts.

Knowing what you, personally, can handle has to take precedence over the screaming headlines that try to demand what you need to know.

What you actually "need to know" is how to stay calm, stay strong, and stay present for your loved ones. The very definition of self-care has to start with self. Knowing yourself and being aware of what you can handle.

Stay safe. Physically, and emotionally.