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The psychology of denial: still struggling to get your head around coronavirus?

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Megan Murray
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While coronavirus may be a relatively new threat to the globe, it’s proven to be extremely dangerous. So why are so many of us still going to the gym, the pub and visiting friends and family? Stylist investigates.

At work, I have been deemed responsible enough to be a fire warden which means, one Tuesday not long ago, I was asked to go for fire warden training. I was presented with lots of vital information in those two hours – a booklet explaining the intricacies of the role, including which fire extinguishers do what, how and why, - but walking away from the training I just couldn’t shake off one throwaway comment the trainer had made.

The fire safety instructor said that, in a time of crisis, human beings tend to do nothing. Nada. Nichts. 

Human nature is to bury our heads in the sand when anything distressing comes our way. 

Fast-forward a couple of weeks and the world looks completely different now to how it did that winter morning. But those words mean more to me now than they ever did. The outbreak of coronavirus in the UK has shown human beings - like me - really do live in denial when shit’s hitting the fan. 

Most adults living in the UK right now understand that coronavirus presents a serious risk to our health. So why are so many people still trying to act like it’s not a big deal? 

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Whether it’s the Instagram stories of people still going to sit in a café on their working from home lunch breaks or popping to the gym, suggestions that we simply swap our dinner out for a dinner in (which would still mean travelling across London and interacting with each other) or continuing with weekend plans to see parents and other family members – it seems that although we’re willing to register that a change has happened, many of us are still determined to carry on with our lives as normally as possible and make light of the situation. 

This denial is what prompted science writer Priya Joi to post a series of informative videos on her Instagram this week, in which she addresses questions like “we’re all going to get the virus anyway, what does it matter?” and “with the streets empty, can’t I go out for a walk or run?”

She explains that the thinking behind ‘I’ll be okay’ is actually really dangerous. In one of her videos Joi says: “The streets are empty so if you’re thinking this is my time to go out on a quiet run, take some pictures or just enjoy no one being around, no it isn’t. The reason is because these sorts of measures of self-isolating and quarantining only work when each individual person takes responsibility and that makes up a societal collective action. 

Are you still going to the gym?

“The other reason is that the virus can last on hard surfaces for up to three days, so even if the streets have been deserted for an entire 48 hours, anything you touch could have the virus on it.”

Coronavirus denial

But why do we go into denial when a crisis like coronavirus happens? I spoke to David Brudö CEO and co-founder at mental wellbeing and personal development app Remente about how common this type of reaction is, and as Brudö explains, it’s deeply ingrained within us.

“A study by Nature Communications found that our fear of uncertainty is so ingrained in us that we actually prefer pain over uncertainty so, of course, we would rather deny uncertainty than face it,” says Brudö.

He continues to explain that in psychology the term denialism means to “avoid or deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth”. Covid-19 is presenting itself for many people as nuisance to daily life: working from home, unable to socialise, transport issues. But this is just the surface.

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If we are to actually think about the impact of coronavirus on our society as a whole, especially as someone who hasn’t yet been affected by its medical symptoms, understanding the seriousness of the rising death toll can all be too much. Therefore, we can be tempted to turn to jokes or pure denial, to deal with the – as Brudö says – uncomfortable truth.

“Some people may be struggling to wrap their head around Covid-19 being a serious problem for this very reason – because it causes them mental distress or upset. As such, they may be ‘denying’ that coronavirus is a serious problem in order to prevent unwanted emotional turmoil,” he continues.

But this stance is also dependent on your situation. “Denial can also be reactionary, and about protecting our world view. A previous study by Duke University found that people deny the existence of issues that don’t fit with their political world view,” he says.

“For people who don’t see coronavirus as an issue, or whose world it may upset by making their life or livelihood seem uncertain, denial of the issue can be a desirable (and easy) option.”     

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How can I speak to someone who is in denial about coronavirus?

Dr Martina Paglia, Clinical and Counselling Psychologist and Clinic Director at The International Psychology Clinic stresses that the most important thing to remember is that you can’t expect someone to think or react how you would.

“We know that there are different stages that people usually go through during and following a crisis. However, this progression is not necessarily linear and we do not always follow the same path at the same pace as we all have our own set of beliefs, mechanism and social context,” she says.

“It is therefore important to be mindful when trying to help a loved one out of denial. We need to remember that individuals will not go always go through those same stages at the same pace or in the same way.”

Paglia reinforces that denial is the refusal to acknowledge threat or harm and that a major factor for this can be because of a lack of, or clear understanding of information. 

She continues: “A person may either not have received enough information, incorrect information or information they’ve misunderstood, which would otherwise enable them to be fully aware of the actual potential harm or threat.  

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“They may assume the situation is not as bad as it really is. A person may have received messages about potential threat, but not understood clear action messages on how they should behave or what they are supposed to do.

She explains that because there “hasn’t been clear direction from Boris Johnson on how people should behave” it can be more difficult for people to think there is a big problem. 

“People may get tired of self-isolation which can cause them to deny the threat of the coronavirus, so it’s important that the Government messages are kept clear, consistent and simple, to explain what they should be doing,” she says.

As the UK hasn’t officially gone into lock-down it can be hard to know how to convince someone that they should be taking serious precautions, but the best we can do is to advice our friends and family to stay as safe as possible. 

You can help with this by showing those you love who are still putting themselves at risk the NHS guidelines on coronavirus which include avoiding social gatherings and going on public transport, and directing them towards support for their mental health if they’re feeling confused or worried. 

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Megan Murray

Megan Murray is a digital journalist for stylist.co.uk, who enjoys writing about London happenings, beautiful places, delicious morsels and generally spreading sparkle wherever she can.

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