Today is the 20th of March 2020. Humanity finds itself in the midst of what is the crisis of a generation. The virus named COVID-19 infects people beyond territorial borders, taking lives along its path. Country after country locks itself down. Airports go silent. Streets deserted. Nature takes over. The world we thought we knew has changed — literally overnight.
Checking in with ourselves, we realize that this is a time to fear. Fear is a legitimate emotion in response to life-threatening crises. Fear is our bodies protective adaptation to environmental stimuli. Feeling fear is, unfortunately, in our modern-day culture, judged as weakness. We judge ourselves when we are afraid. We learn to desensitize ourselves from this emotion.
In my practice, I often observe that clients who desensitize from their emotions are more likely to also lose touch with sensations in their bodies. They often report the feeling of being anxious and having a constant perception of the self “losing ground”.
Feeling fear, in other words, grounds us in our bodies, allowing us to function appropriately. Avoiding the feeling of fear, on the other hand, likely leads to anxiety and panic.
Uncertainty Evokes Panic
Neuroscience tells us that fear and panic are different biological processes. Uncertainty in these times stirs within us feelings of anxiety and panic. We sense a loss of “ground”. We notice the anxiety in our bodies: heart racing, shortness of breath, wrenching of the gut and air hunger. In a state of panic, we feel the urge to “do something”, a response that mirrors the fight or flight response, with the goal of getting the self out of danger.
Prolonged exposure to situations of anxiety leads to panic. Panic is felt as our nervous systems “spiral”. We sense a loss of control. This evokes with it a sense of helplessness in us. The panic system in the brain sends a cascade of activity to the autonomic nervous system and then the limbic system (Solms & Turnbull 2002).
The nervous system locked-down
The COVID-19 outbreak, unlike the quick and spontaneous types of traumatic events, is a situation that persists. At the point of writing this article, the world finds itself in the midst of the outbreak with no end in sight — yet. When a crisis like this persists, people feel trapped. The feeling of trapped-ness is further crystalized by the halting of movement and travel; being locked down. So now we not only feel psychologically trapped in this situation, we are also, in many ways physically constrained.
Being trapped means that our fight-flight response would not work. The limbic system then kicks in. This is our nervous system’s freeze response. Human beings are by nature terrified of this feeling. When our limbic systems kick in this way, our gut wrenches, we feel numb, lethargic. Our natural instinct is to flee this feeling in a number of ways, namely:
- by disassociating from emotions of fear related to the situation, like “forgetting about it”, denying the dangers, being cynical about things and assuming the self to be invincible…
- by doing things to feel better in control of the situation, like stocking up, wearing masks and disinfecting
- and/or by going into depression, like staying in the room for hours watching “netflix”… engaging in addictive behaviors.
I must stress here that none of these modes of adaptation are “bad” unless done excessively or harms people.
Regression into Paranoia
While being a self-preserving organismic response, this panic instinct evokes what psychoanalysts describe as “regression” in humans. We encounter, at this stage, intrusive and often spiraling thoughts; in some people these are paranoid thoughts. The neurophysiological basis of this phenomenon is explained by Porges (2o11).
Carveth (2020) explains it best in his recent video. In times of calm, healthy individuals operate in what the psychoanalysts term as “the depressive position”. In times of crisis stress, we regress back to the paranoid-schizoid position (Klein, 1997).
We observe widespread paranoid-schizoid functioning and persecutory anxiety already in this crisis. People resort to defensive measures. Otherwise functioning people exhibit behavior that would, in “normal times”, be considered psychopathological, like :
- being paranoid, feeling persecuted, needing to control and hoard.
- being hysterical, like checking bodily symptoms,
- being obsessive compulsive, like washing, disinfecting, devising measures,
- being schizoid-like, keeping oneself isolated physically.
Once again, I stress that these natural responses are legitimate as long as they harm no one.
This explains how it can be that universally people panic-hoard the same kind of things, almost instantaneously, in response to the crisis. Carveth explains the hoarding of food, notably high and fast energy carbohydrates as a regression to the oral phase. The hoarding of toilet paper represents the regressed need for control in the anal phase of human development.
From reading news in the media, we can also see how this panic is collective.
Staying Grounded in this Crisis Brings Hope
It is almost too easy to say, “don’t panic”. This is a command that brings no result. The nervous system in spiral can only resolve in its own time. In most cases it brings also the opposite effect.
The things to say would be, “it is okay to be afraid”, “it is okay to feel isolated”, “it is okay to feel helpless”. It is okay to feel emotions.
Feeling emotions grounds us in our experiences and our bodies. When we are grounded, our nervous systems stay active within the “window of tolerance”: functioning; neither over-reactive (fight-flight) nor numb (frozen). Our minds, within the window of tolerance, stay in contact with rationality. More importantly, being grounded enables us to stay in contact with each other.
In panic-mode, time to us feels like a stand-still. We perceive the situation as one in which we are permanently stuck in. This is because our gut tells us that we are trapped. This is a flavor of intrusive paranoid-type thought.
Grounded-ness, on the other hand, allows us to stay in awareness of the passage of time. Grounded, we know that the future exists. When the future exists, there is hope. We stay grounded so that we can sustain this feeling of hope.
While it is okay to slip into regression — and we all actually do in these times — we have to also consider that we can and need to get grounded. The COVID-19 pandemic requires our solidarity. Solidarity happens when we can stay grounded and connected with each other.
All the best to us. May we fly again — soon.
Carveth, D. (2020). COVID 19: Psychoanalytic Perspectives. Online Video. https://youtu.be/zNqZmV02vbQ
Klein, M. (1997). Envy and Gratitude: And Other Works, 1946-1963. Random House.
Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.
Solms, M., & Turnbull, O. (2002). The brain and the inner world: An introduction to the neuroscience of subjective experience. Karnac Books.