A few times a day, I get distracted enough to forget that everything has changed, much of it in ways unlikely to revert whenever the pandemic recedes. Then I remember and return to psychological vertigo, trying to tamp down a mixture of anxiety, terror, and disorientation so profound that I can barely remember what I’m supposed to be doing from one minute to the next. Plague dread never leaves for long.
Vaile Wright, the director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association, says that these kinds of behaviors might seem out of character right now, but they’re pretty standard responses to extreme stress or fear. “The rapidity of which things keep changing is hard to wrap your head around,” she told me. “When we engage in these types of behaviors, it’s an attempt to gain back control because in this situation, the uncertainty of it reminds us of all the things that are out of our control.” Attempting repeatedly to buy the right thing, learn the right thing, or say the right thing are all ways people try to create a feeling of safety for themselves and their loved ones. Refusing to deal with a problem completely—going out to a bar one last time or insisting on keeping your cruise reservations—is its own sort of control, allowing people to force a sense of normalcy onto a future without it, even as it puts them and those around them at risk.
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Unfortunately, there’s a thin line between preparation and repeatedly cycling yourself through bouts of catastrophe panic. “When we’re constantly watching the news or constantly filtering through our social-media feeds, it’s because we’re hoping for suddenly a piece of information that makes us feel in control,” Wright said. “But there isn’t any. We just end up maintaining this unsustainable level of hyperarousal, and it just makes us worse over time.”
No one can be expected to react perfectly to a crisis, especially when it involves the sudden loss of income on top of fears of dying alone on a gurney, gasping for air, in a hospital hallway or mass triage tent. But as people’s makeshift crisis-response centers open up from couches and kitchen tables across America, there’s hope that once the panic fades, people will begin to look outside themselves for the best way forward—resisting isolation, even if it must be physically maintained for months.
Already, you can see that kind of community aid starting to shoot up from the cracks in deserted sidewalks. In New York, more than a thousand volunteers have assembled (virtually) to bring groceries to elderly people sheltering in their homes. A GoFundMe campaign for laid-off Seattle service workers has already raised $100,000, and other efforts like it abound. “It’s a bit about changing the conversation away from us as individuals and to us as a family or as a community, and approaching it in a we’re-all-in-this-together kind of way,” Wright said. “Then your actions become reflective of the common good as opposed to what’s good for you the individual.” It's not a cure for plague dread, but it’s a start.