Weighing up personal risk in the age of COVID-19
As my practice re-opens and restrictions ease, people are reporting feeling more risk-averse than they have in the past. They indicate they feel they are going backwards or remaining stuck rather than moving forward. In turn, this seems to have affected their self-confidence along with their empathy towards other people.
How we each deal with the new reality the virus has brought, along with the subsequent lockdown, varying local arrangements regarding lifting restrictions, together with concerns about what the autumn and winter months might bring are big things to handle. It is important we acknowledge them as such.
When we make important decisions, our emotional well-being (especially our fears and desires which are often closely linked) can play a big part in our decision-making processes. Typically, we go with our initial gut reaction. The brain is very good at convincing us that our emotionally led decisions are the right ones. I would argue there is a strong link between our life experience and the environment in which we grew up - these influence both brain development, how decisions are made, and how risks are approached together with the links to genetics and the interaction between the genes and the environment.
If we can understand how the brain weighs up what is safe and what is worth the risk, this can help build awareness and confidence in our own decision-making process. When we know how and why people differ in their risk calculations this can increase empathy for someone who has made a different decision from our own.
Recently, I did just that with an acquaintance who did not seem to understand why I was behaving more risk-aware than him. When I explained that my immune system was on the weak side so I needed to protect myself, I could see this made sense to him and he subsequently behaved more empathetic and supportive - and that felt good. It also emphasised how each of each handle risk differently.
Whether people perceive a situation to be risky or not is partly due to how the amygdala (the emotional centre of the brain) responds. Human decisions are not usually totally driven by fear. We can assess whether the threat is serious and how we need to respond. This is important because this provides us with the ability to calm ourselves down, and we can reframe a situation and make it less frightening. When we look closely at where the fear is currently coming from, it may be a very different experience and a different context to one which may have happened in the past. So the chances are, it will need a different response.
Some of the risks we are currently experiencing are beyond our comprehension. COVID-19 is still new, so we don't know all the facts. Generally speaking, as humans we don't do well with ambiguity. So the less we know about a particular risk, the riskier it seems. Decision-making becomes harder. It can leave us feeling helpless, lost and anxious. We feel better when we take control.
Yet there are things we can do to reduce our own fears - one of which is to slow down our decision-making process. It is important to think through our personal level of risk and that of the situation with which we want to deal with. It is also important to be well-informed and check out the data available and whatever information is needed to make a decision. Doing homework and identifying a list of pros and cons is a good and productive way to delay action.
Helpful questions to ask ourselves include:
- 'What are the actual risks?'
- 'Do I need to do what I intend to do?'
- 'What is stopping me from doing it?'
If we find ourselves experiencing decision fatigue, it is important to remind ourselves of the worst-case scenario. It is also helpful to think about our motivation for wanting to take a certain risk and contemplate if there are safer ways to satisfy our needs.
Avoiding peer pressure is also a good thing because someone else's priorities and decision-making processes are not the same as ours. We all have our own unique, personal story and this changes our calculation regarding risk as well an individual tolerance for risk and ambiguity. It is important not to pressurise others to take risks. We do not know their story. They do not know ours.
Risk changes and we need to step back and ask ourselves some questions before we act. It is okay to be uncertain; it is OK to change our mind. Ultimately, all we can do is the best we can do and take the necessary precautions in order to minimise our risk to ourselves and to others.
To conclude and reinforce a familiar theme of mine, it is important to be compassionate towards ourselves. The virus is changing all the time and has not gone away. It is important to assess the risks we take and honour our own decisions. They are personal to us. Talking to someone you trust who can provide confidential, independent input can help clarify the mind and bring perspective to our own risk assessment.
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