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Paranoid or just sane? | Moment's Notice


Last updated 3/12/2020 at 9:45am

My mom called today quite excited because a friend had taken her three mini-hand sanitizers on carabiners. She had recently been to the drug store and several other stores to find sanitizer but found empty shelves.

Even better than the sanitizer itself, she seemed happiest about the potential to clip it to something and said, “I can wear one around my neck like a necklace.”

Although I harrumphed that I would prefer a different kind of jewelry, I had to laugh. She created an amusing version of the very newly present conversations about COVID-19. What a few weeks we have had since the coronavirus has taken over our daily (hourly) thoughts, discussions, plans?

Coronaviruses first appeared, according to the experts, in the 1960s, and there are seven different types of that can infect humans. COVID-19 is the most recently discovered type, “novel” is the word the scientists use as it is very much still under study. Another way to say that is that much is still in the category of the unknown.

Our brains do not like the unknown.

A few years ago, researchers from London found that people find uncertainty scarier than actual physical pain. People react more calmly to being told they will receive an electric shock than being told they might receive the shock.

Our brains are constantly looking for ways to predict what is going to happen in the world around us, and it is the time between – during the moments before prediction is possible and what actually happens – that causes us to feel panic.

Humans prefer that as little time as possible passes before we are able to make a decision regarding what will happen, and thus feel comfortable in the known again. It is because during that time our brain is releasing a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine to help it work harder to understand and overcome the uncertainty, and that neurotransmitter makes us feel “on edge.”

According to neuroscientists, it is actually a good thing for our brains to respond in this way.

It helps us to begin to push out the negativity bias that the unknown creates and counters it with a push toward the more constructive optimism bias, returning our anxiety to a more neutral state, one where we understand we have the potential for both positive and negative outcomes and that steps can be taken to increase positive outcomes.

We have come to terms with a number of challenges to our existence because they are no longer new, and well, we have to. It does not mean we ignore them, hopefully, but just manage our negativity bias.

So we feel like participants in the experiment right now, the ones who are told we might or might not receive the electric shock.

The best we can do is to follow the advice of our health experts (the washing of the hands, the staying home if sick, the avoidance of large gatherings, and taking extra precautions if we are within the higher risk population).

We have been given many facts that should help our brains start to transition toward less anxiety, but unfortunately, this uncertainty period has been excruciatingly long for our brains, and is lingering.

I do worry about being in the same room with my mother-in-law and my mother, because they are both within an at-risk population. I have been washing my hands incessantly and carrying hand sanitizer for when I cannot wash them. I have been trying not to touch my face.

But luckily, I have a built-in connection to an optimism bias – my mother’s sensibility. My mom asked for that hand sanitizer because we are planning a trip for a family wedding in a few weeks and wanted it for her travels.

This trip could be impacted if the CDC tells us we should reconsider, but at this point, we are planning to celebrate love with people we adore.

We will wash our hands, a lot, and my mom (and I) might just be wearing the chic new accessory, a hand sanitizer necklace.


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