An Open Letter From a Coronavirus Optimist
I know my glass-half-full attitude can be annoying, but panic isn’t the only way to respond
Look, if anyone knows how annoying I am, it’s definitely me: the woman who has never once purchased Purell. Who has never deigned to open the bathroom door with her soggy paper towel. Whose home medical supply remains limited to treatments for hangovers, heavy flows, and the early signs of aging.
And sure, when you asked if I thought it’d be safe for you to hit the gym, I could’ve come up with a more reassuring response than “Just don’t lick the elliptical.”
When I complained about “those bourgeois yuppie assholes hoarding shit,” what I really meant was “I’m mad that my Whole Foods is out of beans.” (I wanted to make The Stew.) (Yes, of course I mean the new one.)
The truth is, I’m worried too. I haven’t mentally prepared for a pandemic—unless you count the remains of a short-lived canning hobby I tried last winter, my disaster rations are in a grim state. (Bergamot marmalade turns out to be disgusting.)
And look, I know it’s easy to get stuck in the all-consuming psychological hellscape of worst-case scenarios. Even for those who aren’t prone to catastrophizing, the rapid spread of COVID-19 might appear to forecast Book of Revelations–level doom. Panic can be a kind of refuge. It can feel productive to give one’s ambient worry somewhere viable to go.
If people like me are annoying you with all our keep-calm-and-carry-on, believe me, I understand.
But cut us some slack, please. As we strain to keep our glasses half-full, my fellow milk-drinking Pollyannas remain as sensitive to uncertainty as any other human being. Which is to say, quite: A landmark 2016 study concluded that living with uncertainty triggers a far more potent stress response than knowing for sure that a specific terrible outcome is absolutely going to happen.
This phenomenon may help explain the allure of cataclysmic thinking. Keeping the absolute worst possible outcome within sight is a way of mitigating the dread of the vast and scary unknown. Resigning oneself to an inevitability of mass contagion and the ensuing collapse of society seems like a pre-quarantine version of “Jesus, take the wheel.” It’s the armchair epidemiologist’s “fuck-you” to the unknown. It’s also a massive bummer.
Expecting the worst—even preparing for the worst—can sometimes actually make things worse. Individual preparedness doesn’t address the circumstantial variables that are beyond one’s individual control. My buying a few extra bags of rice (uh, eventually) doesn’t ensure that the grocer’s husband got the memo to sneeze into his sleeve. And those who surrender to a certainty of End Days: 2020 won’t achieve much beyond making themselves feel awful.
But don’t just take it from me. “In the therapy world, assuming the worst is sometimes known as a cognitive distortion,” wrote author and therapist Kathleen Smith recently in Forge. “And when reality becomes distorted through a negative lens, negative emotions begin to take over. In some cases, they can lead to symptoms of depression or anxiety — which only further fuel our sense of doom.”
As Smith goes on to explain, anxiety has a kind of incapacitating effect on our ability to think through tough scenarios. The anxious mind, once locked in disaster mode, fixates on a single solution or narrative outcome. From there, it becomes difficult to approach a situation with the kind of perspective that invites multiple potential pathways. Nuance can come to feel like a personal threat.
“You become like one of those doomsday preppers living off the grid in the woods — skeptical of anyone and anything that contradicts their thinking,” Smith writes.
As Anne Helen Petersen points out in BuzzFeed News, we have a tendency to focus inward during times of crisis — as she puts it, “the idea that if you’re fine, then everything’s fine.” But there’s no moral payoff to panic. While it’s not a bad idea to plan for potential quarantine, ordering one more 24-pack of Charmin Ultra Strong Mega Rolls isn’t your personal gift to the greater good.
There’s still time to contain the virus, or at least flatten the epidemic curve, if everyone pulls their weight. That means: a lot of hand-washing, social distancing (you win this round, plan-cancelers), and the disciplined not-touching of faces, among other proactive measures. And it means looking outside yourself and your panic—maybe reaching out to an elderly neighbor to make sure his pantry is stocked, or helping a working parent out with some babysitting while school is closed.
And chin up! The only way out of this dark time is to get through it together. Here, have some milk. It’s organic.