- By Ian Bradley
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I am writing this email from a required 14 day self-isolation required due to my recent Florida golfing trip.
I’ve tried to put together some of my personal thoughts while passing along some hopefully helpful information based upon psychological evidence.
Firstly, why the preoccupation with toilet paper? Although I have only read about the scarcity here in Quebec, I have witnessed the empty shelves in Florida. The scarcity caused me to question whether I was missing something. My stream of consciousness went something like:
If toilet paper was that scarce, it must be inherently that valuable, and I’m behind the curve for not realizing this.
This lingering fear that I was somehow not prepared was not assuaged as I tallied my systematic tallying of the rolls I had left in the rented condo.. Barring choleric diarrhea, turns out I was fine until somewhere into May. I reminded myself that psychologists were not immune to herd effects.
I still can’t explain, however, “why toilet paper.” One commentator I read said that the product represented the ascent and sophistication of modern civilization and that in times of systematic stress, these totems of stability become important, maybe. On the other hand, maybe it’s just doing something especially when the hand sanitizer shelves were wiped clean.
This leads me to uncertainty. I am really not worried about getting sick, I’m careful with hygiene, I’m in good shape and the number of fatalities, even in my age range, are low. I am more concerned about financial markets, and in general, about the future.
Cognitive psychologists have written about planning for uncertainty under various scenarios. The easiest scenario is one where one can detect one or two trends and then readily imagine what the world would look like over time with growing importance of those trends. In this coronavirus pandemic, it seems clear that there will be a continual vigilance about person to person infection with corresponding changes in the way we wash our hands and greet people. Hand washing will increase and hand-shaking will decrease. As I wrote in my last blog post, there will probably be a greater acceptance of telecommuting as well.
However, with coronavirus, we are not just looking at quantitative shifts to “more of this” or “less of that” but rather qualitatively different and multiple scenarios moving forward. What would unfold if the curve was not flattened and hospitals were over-run? What would happen if the curve is prolonged, significantly prolonged, and covid 19 remained as real but low level risk over the next year? What if the new vaccine works or makes vaccinated people sicker? It is this type of uncertainty that I believe is psychologically unnerving and accounts for the very normal swinging oscillations of current risk that we experience as fear. Sometimes, our fears seem overblown and at other times, they seem more than justified.
A helpful thing for me is to be grounded in accurate information. I’m sure that other people have found equally informed and measured sources of information but here is my list.
For world-wide updates of prevalence
For Canadian data on incidence, especially the second derivative graph of the changes in new cases from day to day:
For recent developments in therapeutics and vaccine prevention, STAT
For both immediate reports from the medical front-lines and professional insights, the coronavirus channel from Langone Hospital on Sirius radio, https://www.siriusxm.ca/sxms-doctor-radio-nyu-langone-health-launch-24-7-public-service-channel-phone-line-for-coronavirus-info/
And finally from a guy I found articulate and highly knowledgeable, the former FDA director Dr Scott Gotlieb,@ScottGottliebMD
But I would caution readers to limit their media exposure even to these informative sites. Traditional news outlets have an arousing affective component that can quickly overcome our coping resources. Like nutrition, control what you watch and how long you watch it- nothing before bed!
In times of social stress, psychologists used to think that aggression was a natural consequence. What we now know is that it’s compassion, empathy and thankfulness that emerge. A new term, “care-mongering,” has recently entered our lexicon reflecting the spontaneous eruption of organized acts of charity involving giving away food, people offering to pick-up critical supplies for the home-bound or others, simply offering a listening ear by phone or video. This all fits very nicely with the research of UCLA psychologist Shelly Taylor, https://taylorlab.psych.ucla.edu, who has shown that in times of stress people tend to be more trusting, generous and willing to risk their own well-being to help others.
What I’ve learned from working at home.
Firstly, I’ve found that a routine is helpful; an imposed structure for the day provides reassurance and perhaps makes me more productive. Since my regular life allowed me to start each day at the gym, I’ve tried to maintain that habit with a combination of stretching and floor exercises – Jillian would be proud. Besides working on marking papers, revising a course syllabus and all kinds of other psychology stuff, I’ve also done something I never thought of before – take an online course in Physiology; less heroically, I’ve also re-organized my sock drawer.
Here’s a list of other enrichment activities that I compiled from a quick internet search:
#1 Learning a new skill,
#2 Play brain games
#3 Taking up a craft
Knitting . We Are Knitters
#4 Online classes
Art history Daily Art
University courses EdX
#5 Immerse yourself in culture
Live streaming concerts at live-streaming
Variety of art gallery tours at offer
Visit Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum
#6 Get Fit:
30 day fitness
Yoga and mediation:
I do watch Netflix but I try to resist binge watching where there is a fast decrease in incremental pleasure with each episode.
Social Contact. Isolation is stressful and perspective narrowing. We need people to get out of our own heads. Therefore, reach out of others as much as possible through as many platforms as possible.
Happy hour continues with Zoom:
Finally, the role of optimism. At present there are at least four-drug trials that have been started for potential therapeutics as well as a phase 1 study of a vaccine using a new m-RNA technology. Never before have drugs been developed and tested as quickly. Private-public partnerships in a number of critical areas including personal protective equipment for medical personnel are being formed and will, I believe, rectify the supply problem. Positive things are happening so don’t be mesmerized by the “news of the growing list of community lock-downs. If they close a school in Montreal, London or Waterloo- it’s all the same thing even if the media report is ten minutes long.
A very helpful resource in this time of challenges is Dr Martin Seligman’s site of Authentic Happiness. https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu
For those who don’t know Seligman, he is the founder of an entire movement called Positive Psychology. Singlehandedly, he turned the entire profession away from a sole preoccupation of what’s wrong with people to examine how people could be better, happier and more resilient. There is no one better to read to discover the importance of courage, intimacy, future-mindedness and of course, optimism, than Martin Seligman.
We will get through this.