The Conversation - March 30, 2020

"When you size something up as a challenge, it’s easier to rise to the occasion. Instead ofwithdrawing from the problem, you shift to problem-solving. People with this mindset draw on others to help, and they offer their own support to those in need. Research has shown that working collaboratively andhelping othershas great mental health benefits for the helper."

You have a choice to make when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic.

Do you treat this time as an insurmountable threat that pits you against everyone else? This option entails making decisions based solely on protecting yourself and your loved ones: stockpiling supplies regardless of what that leaves for others; continuing to host small gatherings because you’re personally at lower risk; or taking no precautions because the effort seems futile.

Or do you treat the coronavirus as a collective challenge that will require shared sacrifices to achieve a difficult but not impossible goal? That option would mean taking recommended precautions: practicing social distancing, hand-washing and restricting travel. These actions might not be your most desired or convenient path as an individual, but they contribute to the broader social good, reducing the spread of COVID-19.

As a professor of psychology and licensed clinical psychologist who studies how people think differently when they’re anxious, I recognize this global pandemic has all the ingredients to fuel a threat-oriented mindset. The trajectory of the coronavirus is [uncertain and unpredictable](https://doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7967(99%2900090-X), the very features that fuel anxiety and threat-processing in the brain.

The way people process threatening events matters a lot for how well they’ll manage this period of uncertainty. Some identification of threat is useful and will mobilize you to action, but a rigid overestimation of threat makes you panic or immobilizes you.

Letting the threat dictate your response

When you perceive a situation as a dire threat, it changes how you process information.

No longer do you consider the pros and cons of your choices evenhandedly, looking at the situation from multiple perspectives. Instead, your attention narrows, selectively focusing on cues that reinforce your sense of danger and vulnerability.

Your interpretations become biased, so that you assume the worst when a situation is ambiguous – as almost all situations are.

And you preferentially remember information that confirms a prior belief that the world is a dangerous place and you don’t measure up.

Why is this a problem? After all, the world really is in the grip of an objectively dangerous pandemic. Paying attention to this threat seems vital for staying safe.

The issue occurs when you believe that your personal resources are insufficient to meet the demands of the situation. If you feel the threat is insurmountable, then you give up. Why try if you’re doomed to fail? And if you feel that your resources – be it food, money, time, energy – are inadequate or threatened, then you have nothing to share with others, and hoard what you can for yourself. ...
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