This year Halloween arrived just as the coronavirus pandemic is surging across America, again.  This ironic coincidence of spooks and a deadly virus  provides an opportunity for us to discuss the interesting but confusing paradox in the human psyche which allows us to fear that which is not real and to deny that which is really threatening or dangerous.

On one hand, we celebrate and enjoy horror movies and other things which can scare us temporarily. Yet , as we have seen in the popularity of Donald Trump and his attack on science and the refusal of so many to wear masks and take reasonable precautions to prevent contracting or spreading the coronavirus, many Americans deny  the reality and the severity of COVID-19.  Although counter-intuitive, psychology can explain, at least in part , why this strange contradiction is so.

To begin, let’s understand why we love scary things like movies and Halloween.  When we are scared, our brain releases dopamine which gives us a rush.  The neurochemical reaction is emotionally stimulating and similar to the terror response caused by a real threat or crisis. However, horror movie thrills are significantly different from the experience of actual danger because the rational part of our brain knows that the scary perception isn’t real.  This enjoyment is the same sensation we feel when riding on a roller coaster or in other thrill seeking activities. We like it because it is exciting but down deep, we know that we are safe. We know that we are safe because our neo-cortex , the part of the brain which is rational, assess the situation to be safe.

On the other hand, sometimes we tend to deny real threats when they are overwhelming, and feel out of control. We become overwhelmed when there is a real threat confronting us and don’t know how to handle the dangerous situation or to feel safe.  Neurologically, to make matters worse, the panic which comes from being emotionally overwhelmed causes the amygdale , the hypervigilant part of the brain which constantly looks for threats, to hi-jack and block access to the logical part of our brain which, in the case of a real threat, would cause us to take reasonable action.

In some cases, fear causes us to become angry and attack the threat. In other cases, it causes us to run away. Denial or disbelief is a type of emotional running away which gives us some emotional space to avoid having to deal with or engage the problem before we are ready.  If, however, access to the cortex is not re-established in time ,denial can complicate or make it impossible to respond effectively to the crisis.

In practical and every day terms, we are often in denial.  For example, we all are going to die and that is , at some level, a real threat.  That said, if we are healthy or don’t suffer from hypochondriasis, we don’t think about it  very often. Denial in that sense is not a problem. In fact, it allows us to live our lives with less worry.   On the other hand, if our doctor tells us that we have a serious condition which needs treatment and we, despite many warnings chose to deny and avoid getting treatment , the results could be catastrophic.

Fortunately, there are effective techniques to help us to sort out and and identify irrational fears and problematic denial from normal avoidance. Here are three  basic steps to follow when fear and denial has blocked  access to your neo-cortex:

  1. Recognize the Rational Disconnect.  To use the example of COVID-19, ask yourself some questions.  Do you get emotionally or physically upset when you see news reports about the increasing number of cases or death ?  Do you refuse to wear a mask or feel anger toward those who do ?  Do you really think that the pandemic isn’t dangerous or that it won’t affect your or your loved ones. Is it possible that you may have blocked fearful feelings concerning the virus and just don’t want to think about it ?
  2. Reality Test your assumptions or beliefs.  If you discover that you may be in denial, check out the sources you relied on to support your beliefs.  What does the preponderance of credible evidence conclude about COVID-19 ? Do you think that the numbers concerning coronavirus are fake ? Do you really think that doctors are idiots or that there is a vast conspiracy to lie to the American people just to get the president ?
  3. Calm the Panic Response and Regain Access to your neo-cortex.  Again, if you realize that something is askew and that maybe , although you don’t want to admit it to anyone, you may be more frightened that you let on, focus on your breathing and realize that when you feel scared or out of control that  there is always one thing that you can control — your breathing. Take some intentional breaths, breathing in deeply for a count of four or five , holding for the same time and then exhaling completely.   Just as short and shallow breathing triggers the body to release stress hormones, slowed and deep breathing with a full exhalation signals an all clear and shuts off the release. With a calmer state of mind, you will notice that access to your cortex has been re-established and you can begin to think reasonably and realize that, although the threat of COVID is real, there is a lot that can be done to keep you safe.  Reasonable prudence will replace either reckless denial and paralyzing terror .

Whether the issue is COVID or any other upsetting situation or issue, it is important  to develop the habit of monitoring your own over-reactions to life’s problems and challenges.  Being able to be aware of and discern problematic denial , gross exaggeration , minimalization or any form of  significant irrational thinking is  accomplished by recognizing, reality testing and restoring initial impulses to rational control.  Mastering these important skills will  help you to successfully manage stress and navigate the difficult waters of life’s journey.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC              10 31 202)

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