They say we are living in a VUCA world, a world of increasing vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity, and anxiety.
So much so that over the past 3 decades, anxiety levels have increased by a measure of 30% across the globe.
The recent announcement by the World Health Organization (WHO) that the novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, has reached pandemic status (i.e. a worldwide epidemic), has only heightened this sense of vulnerability and anxiety.
We only have to witness the empty shelves at the supermarkets and the videos of people fighting over the last packet of toilet rolls to know that the world is on edge at the moment.
Gripped with fear and uncertainty, stockmarkets are plunging. Not since World War 2 has the entire world felt under attack as a whole.
When we get caught up in the emotion of what’s happening around us, especially if it’s challenging our sense of mortality like the current COVID-19 pandemic, it can feel as if it’s never going to end. That it’s only going to get worse before it gets worse. As if this is how it’s going to be for a very long time, maybe forever.
So we better stockpile toilet paper because you never know when you’ll need it.
Yet while we’ve been focussing on what’s happening with COVID-19, 2700 people have died each day from malaria.
1700 people have died from ‘normal’ influenza.
26000 people have died of cancer.
24000 people have died of heart disease.
4000 people have died of diabetes.
Furthermore, humans kill 1300 fellow humans every day, and this doesn’t even take into account suicide, which is an even bigger pandemic than COVID-19.
And we also haven’t mentioned human-made diseases like famine.
So why do we focus so much on COVID-19?
According to University of the Arts London consumer psychologist, Paul Marsden, in an article on CNBC, Why People Are Panic Buying and Stockpiling Toilet Paper:
“It’s about ‘taking back control’ in a world where you feel out of control.”
Panic buying, he says, “can be understood as playing to our three fundamental psychological needs.”
These are the need for:
- Autonomy (i.e. control)
- Relatedness (i.e. to belong)
- Competence (i.e. confidence in your ability to do what’s right)
In a VUCA world, the fight and flight response kicks in. We run away from or fight the things that threaten our security and make us feel helpless, and we run towards the things that make us feel more in control.
We feel more in control of our situation when we prepare for something that’s within our range of understanding, like an upcoming snowstorm that might keep us housebound for several days.
But COVID-19 is an unknown and it triggers our feelings of uncertainty. We don’t know how to prepare, so panic sets in and stockpiling toilet paper happens even against our better judgement, which has now become an icon of mass panic.
Uncertainty = Anxiety
Uncertainty, for most of us, causes anxiety. Often a lot of it.
The area of our brains responsible for survival kicks into overdrive when the situation around us is deemed unsafe or threatening. It wants us to feel safe and certain, but uncertainty equates to danger and a threat.
So, when uncertainty is around, the survival brain assumes the worst-case scenario. It projects a story to your mind that ends badly for you, your loved ones, the world, which triggers the fight and flight response. Your stress response is in overdrive.
For good or for bad, this is how the human brain is wired, to seek certainty in a VUCA world.
In fact, the brain prefers the certainty of any outcome than the uncertainty of no outcome at all, even if that outcome ends badly.
As Bryan Robinson writes in a Forbes article, The Psychology of Uncertainty: How To Cope With COVID-19 Anxiety:
“The brain prefers to know an outcome one way or another to take the edge off. Studies show that you’re calmer anticipating pain than anticipating uncertainty because pain is certain. Scientists have found that job uncertainty, for example, takes a greater toll on your health than actually losing the job. Statistics also show you’re more likely to maintain the stamina to continue taking risks after a car crash than after a series of psychological setbacks. And British researchers discovered that study participants who knew for sure they would receive a painful electric shock felt calmer and less agitated than those who were told they only had a 50% chance of getting the electric shock.”
So your brain craves certainty in every situation, and that includes stockpiling toilet paper.
Lessons From An Old Sailor and An Old President
During World War 1, German doctors were perplexed to discover that, when battleships were sunk and sailors were left to drift in life-boat and wait to be rescued, it was the older sailors that survived, not the younger ones.
The doctors had assumed that the younger, fitter, healthier sailors should have survived the extended periods of hunger, thirst, and the elements much better than the older, less healthy sailors.
But this wasn’t the case. The doctors came to realise that it was the mindset of the older sailors that prevailed. Whereas the younger sailors, left adrift in the vastness of the ocean for the first time, began to panic and believe they were never going to be rescued, the older sailors, who had experienced worst-case scenarios before, didn’t panic. They knew they’d be rescued (either by enemy or friendly forces), and so prepared themselves to wait it out in a calm and controlled manner.
Your mindset, therefore, is everything, especially during a crisis.
It’s important not to get stuck in the same way of thinking your survival brain has been telling you over and over again. ‘Fearful’ thinking, worrying, panic buying, is a ‘young sailor’ reaction and is not the way to prepare yourself in a calm and controlled manner.
You might not have the power to control what is happening around you, but you do have the power to control the impact it has on you.
The threat of COVID-19 may make you feel ‘adrift at sea’, but it’s important to put it in perspective—in one way or another, you will be rescued. You might get sick, yes, but chances are as high as 80% (yes, 4 in 5) that you will only experience mild symptoms.
As Bryan Robinson also says: Your perspective is the most powerful thing you can control in a situation that is beyond your control.
One year prior to being elected as US President, Abraham Lincoln took a similar perspective in his 1859 speech at the Wisconsin fair when he said that all things, good or for bad, will come and go:
“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And this too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”
Yes, this too shall pass…