That Dread You Feel isn’t COVID-19
The Scream by Edvard Munch

That Dread You Feel isn’t COVID-19

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By Stephen Fallon, PhD

There’s a hum of fear deep in your mind. Maybe you blame it on the relentless COVID-19 news coverage. The gap between ratings-pumping hysteria and the White House’s “nothing to see here” script doesn’t make you feel confident that the greatest nation has a handle on this pandemic. Compulsively checking the local tally of new COVID-19 cases every single day probably doesn’t make you feel calmer, either. Meanwhile, parades of faceless people in masks everywhere remind you of some apocalyptic movies.

If you haven’t acquired COVID-19, and no one close to you has fallen dangerously ill, why are so many of us tossing and turning in bed, and feeling unmotivated all day?

Uncertainty is unsettling. We don’t know when this outbreak will pass. New information about coronavirus keeps revising what we thought was true just weeks before.

Helplessness is unsettling. Unlike our ancestors, we’re not used to staying on alert for invisible enemies that can take people down in everyday life. When people die, it’s supposed to make sense. Heart attack? His diet was awful. Cancer? Everyone knew he smoked too much. Now we hear of people dying and no one knows why. Maybe the virus got onto the change they got back at the supermarket. Maybe the package delivery guy coughed. Maybe it was the hand-shaking at church. Who knows?

COVID-19 upsets our usual answer to the eternal question: “Why?” It upends our “just world belief,” the conviction that bad things only happen for predictable reasons. That faith was never really justified; random tragedy happens. It was just a comforting myth, until it mocked its validity. Still, you’re pretty sure that you’re taking the best steps you can to keep yourself safe — maintaining social distance from other people, and wearing a face mask when you rush through the store for provisions. So why do you still feel a gnawing dread? Does your persistent anxiety mean that somehow your body senses you’re going to be the next to fall ill? Actually, your mood is more a function of evolution than prophecy.

Self-isolation triggers ancient alarm bells. Our bodies are screaming (through chemical imbalances), trying to get our attention, and warn us to get back to the group, where we’re programmed to feel safest. As the classic R&B song put it: “I’m so tired of being alone. I’m so tired of on my own.

Mother Nature actually hard-wired into us an impulse to gather in close groups for safety.[1] For our ancestors, it was being alone that put you at risk, not being too close to people. Alone, you could freeze to death outdoors, or die after a fall because no one was there to patch you up, or get killed by a predator or rival tribe. The human default setting is to maintain “safety in numbers.” Occasionally the clan that dined together died together, from a spoiled carcass shared. But more often, grouping together meant that when one member got picked off, the others had time to fight back in force, or to save their genetic line by running back to their defenses together.

Even today, Mother Nature gives us positive reinforcement when we stay close to other humans. Partners and close friends who see each other every day smooth out one another’s emotional spikes through an automatic, unnoticed chemical reaction called “limbic regulation.”[2] After a loved one dies, surviving spouses who maintain strong social circles double their own survival rates. Even having a dog or a cat helps because  all mammals unconsciously transmit this emotional tether line to others.[3]

On the other hand, if we’re alone too much, we literally risk our health. Men who live alone without close friends show higher levels of inflammatory chemical markers in their bloodstream (C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, and fibrinogen).[4] These chemicals make them feel anxious. Often, solitary men try to quiet the chemical alarms with excessive alcohol use and drugs.

People who are partnered or married typically outlive those who are single. Among the elderly, the risk of premature death is three-to-five times higher for those who live alone.[5] All ages are impacted. When minor diseases swept through orphanages in the 13th century[6] and again in the 1940s,[7] they didn’t just cause a few little ones to fall ill. They wiped out huge numbers of infants who shared just one common trait: they were the ones not regularly cuddled and touched.

Loneliness isn’t “just” an emotion. When people feel a loss of a relationship, the part of the brain that activates is the same part that lights up when the body is painfully injured.[8] Yet today, this innate security impulse for grouping together is the very source of our risk of COVID-19. Our wiring hasn’t adapted. Can you rewrite these primitive scripts, so that you can both stay safe and not feel awful? Survivors of wars, famines, and economic collapse created helpful coping tools.

Allow yourself to grieve. Denial doesn’t make problems go away; they just fester. Allow yourself to note that this situation is crummy and not fair. In your mind (or even on paper), tell the COVID-19 all the ways that it’s messing with your life. Then take a deep breath, and try to reframe to happier thoughts.

Celebrate better times. Concentration camp prisoners would build community and resiliency by describing in great detail the bountiful meals they’d once enjoyed together. Veterans in war zones would fortify hopes for civilian life by sharing photos of their sweetheart back home. Families scraping by during the Depression would gather around a last treasured item, seeing it as a talisman to a better future.

Tell your body that things are normal. If you stay up all night binging Netflix®, and eat only junk foods, you’ll throw your body on a roller coaster of chemical changes. Try to maintain your regular diet and sleep times. If you exercised in a gym, find ways to improvise at home. Select take-out food or groceries that are similar to your usual meals. You’ll keep your daily clock (known as circadian rhythms) better aligned, and you’ll feel more yourself.

Even if we can’t be together during this lonely time, you’re not alone in what you’re feeling. We’ll make it through these days of anxiety. This won’t last forever.

Dr. Fallon is the Executive Director of Latinos Salud.

[1] Diamond J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

[2] Money, J. Love and Sickness: The Science of Sex, Gender Difference, and Pair-Bonding. 1980, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[3] Lewis, Thomas, et al. A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House, 2000.

[4] AHA Scientific Sessions 2003: Abstract 3378. Presented Nov. 11, 2003.

[5] Ornish D. Love and Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy. New York: Harper Collins, 1998.

[6] Coulton G.G. St. Francis to Dante. London: David Nutt Press, 1906, p. 242-243. Cited in Lewis T, et al. A General Theory of Love. New York: Vintage Books, 2000, p. 68-69.

[7] Spitz R. “Hospitalism: An Inquiry into the Genius of Psychiatric Conditions in Early Childhood.” Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 1945; I:53-74.

[8] Eisenberger N, Lieberman M, and Williams K. “Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Science, October 10, 2003, 302: 290-296.