This is no time to panic…or, at least, so says our rational brain. However, we are not always rational creatures. Our survival as a species has often depended on a complex set of adaptations based on fear. The early hunter-gathers didn’t always know which berries were safe to eat, but they learned quickly through experience. Similarly, those same early humans who first encountered a large animal in their environment didn’t know if the animal represented food, prey or predator. Again, they learned, but sometimes that learning came at the cost of lives.
As I sit to write this article, American society is just a few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is much we have not yet learned – but we will. The early costs will likely be higher than any of us want to pay, but we will learn with more experience. Right now there are too many unknowns: how virulent is this illness? What is the true mortality rate? What spreads the virus and what inoculates us from the negative consequences? We are learning more with every passing day, but we still have not learned enough.
As mental health professionals, especially those of us who work on college campuses, know for certain is that whenever there is a void between what is known and what we desire to know, anxiety will often take hold in those cracks and fill the space that is remaining. Our nation currently faces a medical pandemic. There is a virus that is spreading across the globe that we have not seen before – it is both viral and lethal (at least to the most vulnerable among us). It will disrupt the way we interact and function as a society. All of us will likely have to make changes to the way that we live, work and play. Many will find our lives uprooted and our sense of safety compromised. Of this, there is no doubt.
In these moments, I am immensely grateful to the physicians and epidemiologists who are dedicating their lives to studying COVID-19 in order to make recommendations and guidelines that best protect us, both as individuals and a society. Already, because of these current recommendations, school systems across the country are shutting down and classes are being moved online. People are being strongly discouraged from gathering in large clusters in hopes to slow the spread of the disease. Sporting events and concerts, activities specifically designed to bring people together in the spirit of commonality and shared interests, are being cancelled or postponed with no timeline for rescheduling.
It is hoped that these physical distancing practices may help contain or delay the spread of COVID-19. By navigating these temporary disruptions, we may be protecting our best future or at, at minimum, ensuring that we still have one. And yet, as group therapists and clinicians, we have long known — and research has proven time and again — that social isolation is dangerous. When we isolate from others, we are at much greater risk for loneliness and reduced self-esteem. We know that isolation and uncertainty, when mixed together in sufficiently large quantities, form a powerful cocktail for anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. These facts are not in dispute…and they do not change just because we live in a pandemic.
To navigate the new realities in which we currently face, we have no choice but to embrace the dialectic – the idea that two, seemingly contrary, concepts can and must exist at the same time. Physical distancing is critically important for maintaining our safety, yet social isolation has proven to be deadly. Both of these statements are true; no matter how incompatible they seem. And while this is happening, we will likely be under levels of generalized stress and uncertainty that we know to be unsustainable, with no reasonable estimate of when the pandemic may fade.
I am personally not immune to the negative consequences of combining existential anxiety with physical distancing. Recently, I attended the annual conference of a professional organization that I hold near and dear to my heart. As reports started to emerge that multiple attendees of the conference had tested positive for COVID-19, I tried to call and get more information from the organization. I was told that an “official” statement would be made when the leaders were ready – and not a moment before. I immediately became angry and intensely frustrated. This organization that I had given countless hours of time and thousands of dollars of money was stonewalling me at a time when I felt both vulnerable and scared. I railed at the leadership – both in a private email and an unintentionally public forum post – expressing my frustration and threatening to leave the organization. It was not my proudest moment, but it was a genuine reflection of my fear and the disappointment I felt in the moment. While it ultimately took many hours of self-reflection and empathy, both for myself and to those in the organization’s leadership, I recognized that my anger was real, but it was also magnified to an unhealthy level by the stress of the situation. The physical distancing I had implemented had kept me from checking in with the people who normally keep me grounded. Without my usual tethers, I was lashing out in order to seek control in a helpless situation. I was engaging in this non-productive, dysfunctional behavior despite having over twenty years of mental health experience to inform about the best ways to navigate acute stress.
While I can’t speak for the epidemiologists and can make no scientific claims about the COVID-19 virus, I can say with certainty that from a mental health and sociological perspective none of us are immune to the impact of fear. All of us can struggle with the human condition and the relative frailty of our experiences. As a result, we cannot let physical distancing become social isolation. We may no longer want to gather in large groups, at least for the foreseeable future, but we do want – nay, need – to stay connected to each other. Maybe it is no longer safe to spend the night dancing in a club or grabbing a group of friends to see a movie in the theatre, but we can still text a loved one. We can pick up the phone and check in with our friends. We can instant message our squads to let them know we’re still hanging tough and see if there is anything they need. We can and must stay involved in each other’s lives – even if we need to do it from a bit more distance than usual.