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Coronavirus and denial: Why some people just can't face reality

It’s no wonder that some folx resist acknowledging the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, what with the denier-in-chief’s seeming belief that the virus will magically disappear and all. Meanwhile, in reality, millions of lives are being affected by the novel coronavirus and the pandemic shows no signs of abating. Refusing to accept the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic is making some people more likely to reject public health safety precautions and that makes life more dangerous for the rest of us. How do we understand and deal with people who are in denial about COVID-19?

It’s important to note that denial is a valid psychological response. It’s the first stage of grief, and it's also a common way that we "deal" with our fear of death. In lay terms, it’s the “this cannot be happening moment,” we all feel when faced with truly terrible circumstances. Denial, essentially, is our brain’s way of protecting us from feeling the psychological and physiological impact of tumult before we’re ready. But denial is a state of mind that should, and can, be passed through on the way to acceptance, though. And when it comes to coronavirus, some people are getting stuck there.

“Humans are going through a sort of loss, a loss of life as we knew it,” says Dulcinea Pitagora, an New York City-based psychotherapist. "People are so afraid of death that they are in denial they can die, which leads to risky behaviors that increase their chances of dying," This state of denial, then, which the brain uses to protect us from panicking, becomes self-defeating when we stay in it too long.

“Most people in denial about COVID-19 aren’t actively seeking risk, because they’re not consciously aware of the actual risk,” Pitagora explains. “What they’re doing is telling themselves it doesn’t exist, or it’s not as extreme as scientists say...So they are prioritizing risky behaviors like socializing without masks or enough distance, or going about business as usual without taking adequate precautions.” Denying the reality of this virus, then, makes some people feel like it's okay to ignore the public health protocols that keep us all safe.

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If denial of the realities of coronavirus can lead to dangerous behavior, why would anyone do it? Even if you aren’t sure you can trust all the information you’re getting, wouldn’t you just follow the rules in order to keep yourself safe?

Well, it’s more complicated than that. People in denial, it turns out, are operating at sort of a cognitive deficit. It takes a lot of energy to deal with reality. “We are all existing in a state of hypervigilance and increased stress, which uses up a lot of mental energy, leaving less mental energy for other cognitive functions,” Pitagora tells Mic. This is why so many of us are experiencing that we have slower response times and a general lack of focus. That’s true for all of us, but brain activity gets even more energy consuming when you factor in the work of denial.

The ironic part is that while it takes a lot of energy to deal with this complicated COVID-19 reality, it takes even more energy to deny it. “There are those that are aware of the gravity of the situation, but who’s cognitive processes have slowed down to the extent that they lack awareness around risky behaviors,” Pitagora says. “They end up doing more rationalizing around risky behaviors because they don’t have the cognitive resources available to think things through thoroughly.”

There are a lot of reasons why people may not want to accept reality right now, but it’s important to note that individuals who are in denial aren’t making a conscious choice to sabotage themselves and others. Denial isn’t volitional; it’s something your brain does when you don’t have the psychological tools to deal with something. And while Pitagora is careful not to generalize about who is more likely to lack those tools, they do note that privilege may play a large part.

“If you’re a person who is in the most privileged category and you are used to being prioritized,” Pitagora says, “you may develop the expectation that where your mind is going must be correct.” Basically, if you are used to being right, you start to assume that you are always right, even when your brain is doing some pretty complicated — and dangerous — somersaults to convince you.

“There are huge groups of white people who are not taking COVID-19 seriously,” Pitagora says, “and that is in no small part due to the privilege blinders that keep them from understanding that Black and brown people in our country are getting hit the hardest by the pandemic.”

When you interact with people who are wearing these privilege blinders, it can be really easy to feel frustrated and angry. That’s real and valid, Pitagora says, but trying to convince people to behave differently using aggressive or angry tactics is usually not successful. Pitagora makes an analogy to working with clients who are in a state of psychosis. “If you’re working with someone who is not in reality, you can’t meet that with rationality,” Pitagora says. “You need a different kind of approach.”

As usual, the answer is compassion. “It seems counterintuitive, but the people in most denial are the most vulnerable,” Pitagora says. Dealing with them may take some extra emotional labor on your part. If you are introspective by nature, have already dealt with trauma, or are part of a marginalized group, you probably already have really strong emotional labor skills. Should you have to do that work? No. But it might help right now.

If you find yourself face-to-face with a maskless Trumper and all you want to do is scream, well, I feel you. But it’s more important in that moment to pause. The first thing to do is slow down, validate your own emotional response, and think about how you can process the experience later with a friend or personal care practice. Then, Pitagora says, try to cultivate a sense of compassion for a person in denial. They are, actually, at a major disadvantage. They are both psychologically and physically in danger. Try to imagine that you are dealing with someone in great pain who needs your help and that by helping them you help also yourself and the whole of humanity — which is 100% accurate — and then try to engage with them with care.

“Take advantage of your own self-awareness,” Pitagora says. Pitagora suggests reminding yourself that you are the one who is stronger even when you are dealing with someone with a lot of privilege. If you are side-eyeing me hard right now, I don’t blame you. It’s not fair that the same people have to do the emotional labor all the time. But we can handle it if we remind ourselves and each other of our own resilience.

People in denial may have privilege, but — as evidenced by he who must not be named — they don’t have the fortitude to cope with reality. They don’t know how to face hard truths because they might not have never had to. “They are depleted,” Pitagora says, so the emotional work falls on the shoulders of the people who are able to carry it. Our work, in this moment, may be to be uncompromisingly kind to people who seem (and act)like the enemy. They don’t have the skills to take care of themselves, much less us. This work, which so many have been doing for so long, is now more urgently needed than ever. As Pitagora says, “It is urgent that we figure out how we are all going to take care of each other.”