COVID-19: Why people behave differently during times of crisis

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Even though the stress response is the same from a physiological perspective from person to person, what triggers the stress response and how we react to a crisis behaviorally is highly variable. It’s important to understand WHY people respond the way they do when bad things happen.

There are factors about how we respond to crises that are genetically predetermined. Some of us are hot reactors and our stress response is easily triggered. Hot reactors tend to react quickly and intensely to anything triggering our stress response. Conversely, some of us are cool customers who have to be prodded to recognize we are standing in the middle of a burning building.

However, the exact nature about what triggers our stress response is highly variable. Physical threats predictably trigger virtually all of us. Cognitive threats we perceive based on life experience varies a great deal. For example, those who are dealing with post-traumatic stress have triggers that may not seem obvious to most other people. We have to understand our responses so we can explain why we might hit the floor at the sound of a car backfiring.

At times of a global crisis (like now) you can expect a wide variety of behavioral responses by people. Look around and consider how others are responding to the latest COVID-19 news. Some search data points to understand the math and science about what’s going on. Others go out and party in the streets. Some people are becoming highly anxious, others roll with it. Some hoard, some don’t.

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The variation in human response to COVID-19 is similar to other pandemics. Because it becomes an “enemy from within” and is not easily visualized, people will usually respond in a manner similar to how they deal with an unknown threat in other aspects of their lives.

For example, if you’re an anxious person by nature, being in ‘unchartered waters’ like this is likely to send your stress response into overdrive. There are many reasons why people become anxious, but it’s been my experience as a psychotherapist that a large number of people with these types of issues find the root of their anxiety is usually around issues of control. Ultimately, these people should look at WHY they might have control issues and deal with them accordingly.

Denial is a frequently used strategy during times like these. These are folks out partying like it’s 1999 (if only, lol) despite every bit of scientific evidence suggesting social distancing NOW. Some of us simply attribute this behavior to stupidity. I wish it were that simple.

Denial has several aspects that are actually adaptive and serve to allow an individual the time it takes for their brains to process what is happening. I liken it to the brakes on a car that slow you down to prevent an accident. Your brain basically has to go into a state of suspended animation in order to cope with highly disturbing stimuli.

Donna and Mike Cullen celebrate with firends along Hamburg Street, in Buffalo,NY after the cancellation of the Old First Ward St. Patrick’s Day Parade due to the COVID-19 on Saturday, March 14, 2020. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News).

Folks out partying right now are doing what they feel is necessary to block out the stark reality of what is happening around them. They can and will find every shred of evidence to counter the science in order to assuage their fear. They adamantly and in your face deny any fear whatsoever, but the reality is their denial is a maladaptive coping strategy that may have worked for them in the past.

Frankly, it’s a waste of energy to rationalize with someone in an irrational state of mind. Best to shut things down as it seems is happening around the country now because it’s the only way you will get cooperation from people stuck in denial. Understand, this does not make one a “bad” person, it just makes them a person in denial who is doing what they believe they need to do to survive at that moment.

The best approach is to understand WHY and accept in this free society there are going to be a certain percentage of people who will only do the right thing (science based) if they are forced. That doesn’t sit well with Americans, to be sure. But these are extraordinary times and they call for extraordinary measures.

The most useful thing each of us can do is some honest introspection. Examine your beliefs and why you may be reacting the way you are to COVID-19. Follow your anxiety pattern by asking yourself WHY you believe this or that about COVID-19.

Then, as much as you can, try to be open about addressing your own irrational beliefs about what is happening and where to go from here. We are all carrying maladaptive coping mechanisms, so if we address them openly and honestly it frees us to be less anxious and open to accepting what we cannot control.

If the collective not only does the right thing by social distancing, but also taking the time to reduce our own irrational beliefs and why we have them, we can reduce the tsunami of emotion going on to more ripples in a pond that are much more manageable. We can “flatten the emotional curve” understandably raging throughout our world today.

Editor’s babble: OK, that’s enough babble for today. You can find me on Twitter @RobynMundyWYO. If you find this article helpful, please pass it on. Remember, reducing the number of deaths from COVID-19 will require being honest with ourselves and stop wasting time judging others. Be a contributor to the solution, not the problem. Sending lots of love your way today and always.

About Robyn Mundy

Robyn Mundy is Editor-in-Chief of the BillsMafia blog at She's a retired oncology nurse & psychotherapist who loves to write about her life-long passion for the Buffalo Bills, and occasionally something of clinical or social relevance. Robyn lives with her husband Gary and their dogs in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. Robyn is also a proud founding sponsor. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynMundyWYO.