We’ve all heard about the orders to stay home, practice social distancing and frequently wash our hands to help slow the spread of COVID-19. We’ve also probably seen or heard about people who just won't do that.
When the stakes are so high, why don't people follow instructions to help others and themselves?
Denial and delusion.
Those two powerful concepts are at the heart of noncompliance, says Junice Rockman, a neuropsychotherapist with the Central Texas private practice JRocktherapy.
Rockman says one of the stories people tell themselves in the face of something big like the coronavirus pandemic is: "If I just turn away, it's not real."
"But turning away from something doesn't take the experience of it away," she said. "It just takes our ability to better process it and live through it."
So how can people better process it and live through it?
First of all, Rockman says we have to consider how behavior impacts not only ourselves but others.
"Lean into the possibility that by respecting these boundaries and at least walking a moderate line, we might be better helping our brother, our sister, our neighbor and maybe even ourselves," Rockman said.
She also suggests embracing practices that will help us stay emotionally and physically calm in the face of troubling circumstances and data.
Read the interview below and listen to the conversation with Junice Rockman for further discussion on how to do that and how to adjust to prolonged isolation.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Junice Rockman: On some level, we as human beings can tell ourselves or think that we can tell ourselves enough times, “I'm above this. I'm beyond this. I'm untouchable. And if I stay in this deluded thinking then it probably won't happen.” We tend to want to create a story around something and live that so that we're not feeling that we're being restrained or held back.
And then the other thing is that sometimes we just live in a world of denial. If I just turn away, it doesn't make it real. But turning away from something doesn't take the experience of it away. It just takes our ability to better process it and live through it.
KUT: How do you get people out of delusion and denial so that their behavior does fall in line with what everybody needs to be doing right now?
Rockman: Now, more than ever, I think we need to reexamine the idea of collectivism. One of the main cognitive distortions is all or nothing thinking, where it has to be all, everything. [For example], I’m going out to the lake, and I'm throwing a party, and I'm having people over, and I'm taking a flight, and I'm doing this and that. Or, I'm going to go and dig a hole or live in my cave, so to speak, and hide from everyone.
I think we have to try and find some moderation here. Lean out of the fear; lean into the love. Lean into the possibility that by respecting these boundaries and at least walking a moderate line, we might be better helping our brother, our sister, our neighbor and maybe even ourselves.
KUT: We've been seeing evidence of behavior — buying toilet paper — a lot of things that may not necessarily be directly related to what's going on right now, but people felt sort of a need to just buy a lot of it. Why did people do that?
Rockman: When I think about the word fear, I immediately think scarcity. The scarcity mentality says, “I have to go get all the toilet paper. I have to get as much water because what will happen if I don't have enough? What if I run out?”
Then it becomes every-man-for-himself or every-woman-for-herself mentality where “I have to get it before they do.” And the more that we project that, not only into our everyday experience, but the more that we project that onto the people around us, we're going to get more of that because it feeds it.
KUT: COVID-19 is a clear and present threat. How can we manage that knowing that we've got weeks, if not months, still ahead?
Rockman: I think that we have to realize that we have to learn to surrender a degree of our control. I think that some of this is going to be a little bit of a process of surrendering and realizing that there is some finiteness that we all have.
When we sit and we think about and fixate on worry, fear, the pandemic, desolation and scarcity, we are releasing an inordinate amount of cortisol in our body and our central nervous system. When we sit and we think about what might happen that is clearly out of our control, we're also over-firing those adrenal glands and creating adrenal fatigue.
On the reverse of that, when we start to practice mindfulness — we've learned how to meditate and we learn how to be with ourselves and sit with ourselves and stop looking for external things to make ourselves OK – as we do this with our brains, we have neuroplasticity.
We can retrain our brain, and we can begin to release more oxytocin, which is that calming hormone and neurochemical. We can release endorphins, and we can begin to calm our nervous system. That's going to take practice. So if you haven't started it yet, this is a great time to at least consider it.
KUT: How can people add and incorporate new habits and really make them stick?
Rockman: I think it's a daily practice. I think that we can think to ourselves: “I want to start living more mindfully because I actually want to feel different in my own system. I don't want to feel these butterflies in my stomach. I don't want to feel this angst in my chest and in my heart. I want to begin to become the best version of myself with the circumstances that I'm given right now.”
That's all that we can really do. The practice of it is, again, literally retraining the brain. When you want to go and do what you used to do, which might be to get on the phone and gossip all day about how the sky is falling, if that is what your usual habit is and it's giving you the results of fear and anxiety and increased depression and stress, then go in the opposite direction.
If you look at the human brain, there are grooves in the brain and those grooves are pathways. They’re neural pathways and highways that have been connected over time through our habits, our choices and our ideas.
You can begin to practice every day, even if you just have a mantra for the day or statement for the day or an affirmation for a day. When you do that, you actually calm your central nervous system — that vagal nerve begins to re-adapt and adjust. And really getting that we cannot control what is happening around us, but we can control our response to it and the domino effect that we put out into the world.
KUT: How can people adjust to ongoing and prolonged isolation?
Rockman: If we're critically dependent on external validation, on external resources or people outside of ourselves in order to feel OK — now, I don't mean like just basic human interaction and need for safety or medication or financial or economic support, things like that, but I mean that desperate hunger that sometimes we feel when we don't get enough likes on social media or when we walk in the room and people don't acknowledge us at the party or when we start to feel lonely — if we don't know who we are and we're always looking without to be okay, we'll continue to suffer.
So some of this is going to be going back into that primitive instinct that we had that we can just be and dwell amongst ourselves with who's in our space. And if it's just us in our space, it's time to look at the person in the mirror and get comfortable.
[Maybe] you have to journal, you have to read, you have to do some crying and do some cathartic things and then reach out for support when needed. I think we're going to have to get used to a new normal, honestly, and to be flexible, because if you're rigid, you'll break. If you have flexibility, you can bend and not break and have resiliency until this all passes and we figure out what the new normal is.
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