Sunday Independent (Ireland)

Mau­reen Gaffney

We’re en­ter­ing a fresh stage of the ‘now nor­mal’ and that means adapt­ing to in­creased un­cer­tainty, writes

- Mau­reen Gaffney Dr Mau­reen Gaffney is a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor. Her new book Your One Wild And Pre­cious Life will be pub­lished in 2021 Leo Varadkar

To ap­proach or to avoid: it’s the new choice

SO, it’s to be a sum­mer of hope af­ter all. Last Fri­day, Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar an­nounced an ac­cel­er­ated lift­ing of lock­down. With the in­fec­tion rate brought un­der some kind of con­trol, there is an in­creas­ing ur­gency to bring the econ­omy out of a coma and to man­age the grow­ing bore­dom and frus­tra­tion at the pro­longed dis­rup­tion in our lives. So we are be­ing in­vited to re-en­gage in life. And, to bor­row a phrase from The Dead, our col­lec­tive souls are swoon­ing slowly at the prospect.

Well, not so fast. What we are ef­fec­tively be­ing asked to do is re-en­gage while still avoid­ing risk.

Af­ter nearly three months of con­fine­ment, the ap­petite for any kind of re-en­gage­ment will be huge, and so will the at­ten­dant risks be­cause we are re-en­ter­ing a world that is very dif­fer­ent from the one we were used to.

Two of the most ba­sic hu­man drives are now go­ing to come into play, and into op­po­si­tion. We have an in­nate and strong in­stinct to ap­proach and en­gage in life and an equally strong in­stinct to avoid what is po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous. And when it comes to pur­su­ing our plea­sures, these op­pos­ing ten­den­cies of­ten come into con­flict. As we grad­u­ally re­turn to work, busi­ness, so­cial­is­ing, and shopping for more than the ba­sics, but with the threat of in­fec­tion still present, our ap­proach and avoid­ance drives will in­evitably in­ter­sect and that in­her­ent ten­sion be­tween them will in­ten­sify.

For gov­ern­ments faced with the ex­is­ten­tial threat of Covid-19 spread­ing un­con­trol­lably through pop­u­la­tions, im­pos­ing lock­down will turn out to have been the easy bit. When fear was in the as­cen­dant, it wasn’t hard to mo­bilise the avoid­ance drive and it lent it­self to sim­ple mes­sag­ing: ‘‘Stay home. Wash your hands. Main­tain a two-me­tre so­cial dis­tance from oth­ers.’’ In other words — in­hibit the drive to ap­proach and fully en­gage with life. Now, we have to re-mo­bilise that drive to ap­proach and en­gage in life again, but not at full throt­tle, be­cause we have to si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­have as if in full avoid­ance mode. That is an al­to­gether trick­ier propo­si­tion.

The Gov­ern­ment can’t is­sue a full-throated call to get back to nor­mal be­cause the old nor­mal is gone, and the ‘‘new nor­mal’’ is some way off. So all we have is the ‘‘now nor­mal’’ — an in­def­i­nite pe­riod of un­ex­pected changes and un­cer­tainty. There is no sim­ple mes­sag­ing about how to man­age that. Now, it’s make-it-up-as-you-go time and that will carry a whole other set of stresses.

Emerg­ing from lock­down will be a bit like com­ing off a strict diet. There will be an al­most over­whelm­ing temp­ta­tion to binge, with the cer­tain knowl­edge that this will be fol­lowed by the in­evitable tsunami of guilt and anx­i­ety about the con­se­quences. So, in­stead, we will all have to learn to change our old habits, learn new ones, and put good de­ci­sion-mak­ing at the cen­tre of our lives.

We will have to add a new cop­ing strat­egy to our reper­toire — a kind of pro-ac­tive cop­ing that will in­volve an­tic­i­pat­ing and de­tect­ing likely threats to our safety, and act­ing to pre­vent or mute their im­pact. This will re­quire a steady vig­i­lance, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously de­vel­op­ing a cer­tain tol­er­ance for am­bi­gu­ity so that we can get on with our lives.

Our lives will now be full of mi­cro-de­ci­sions as to what’s safe and what con­sti­tutes risk. We will be vig­i­lant in a new way, screen­ing the en­vi­ron­ment for cues that may sig­nal safety or dan­ger, and mak­ing that judg­ment will be nowhere near as sim­ple as eye-balling a two-me­tre

span. We will find our­selves on high alert, screen­ing the en­vi­ron­ment for any cues to pos­si­ble dan­gers, and pay­ing more at­ten­tion to any sense of un­ease. We will find our­selves sud­denly con­flicted, our de­sire to re-en­gage col­lid­ing with our de­sire to avoid dan­ger and stay safe.

We will be­come more sen­si­tised to in­ter­nal cues, pay­ing more at­ten­tion to any feel­ing of un­ease: What does this mean? And should I be wor­ried about it? And it will be hard to test those feel­ings against re­al­ity, be­cause in this un­cer­tain en­vi­ron­ment of the ‘‘now nor­mal’’ there are few norms to guide us, so the con­flict be­tween

de­sire and fear is likely to be re­solved in favour of fear. We will be frus­trated by the be­hav­iour of oth­ers that we in­ter­pret as un­safe, self­ish, or in­tru­sive, and it will take a while to develop new norms as to what’s ac­cept­able and ‘‘nor­mal’’.

And much as we long for the free­dom to make our own choices and de­ci­sions, mak­ing all those mi­crode­ci­sions will use up a great deal of the cog­ni­tive and emo­tional re­sources re­quired to re­sist the temp­ta­tion to do some­thing risky, to sup­press feel­ings of frus­tra­tion, to do con­cen­trated work and the qual­ity think­ing needed to ne­go­ti­ate this com­plex ‘‘now nor­mal’’ world.

These are all the rea­sons why for em­ploy­ers and busi­ness own­ers, psy­cho­log­i­cal acu­ity is go­ing to be at least as im­por­tant as busi­ness acu­men. They will need to fig­ure out what cues in their par­tic­u­lar en­vi­ron­ments, phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal, are likely to be read as safe or risky. For ex­am­ple, inat­ten­tive­ness or in­dif­fer­ence, nor­mally ex­pe­ri­enced as just an ir­ri­tant, may now as­sume a dif­fer­ent sig­nif­i­cance. Do­ing that psy­cho­log­i­cal au­dit will be as im­por­tant as the phys­i­cal changes they are mak­ing in their premises.

But what will most come to our aid in restor­ing some sem­blance of nor­mal­ity is the huge vari­abil­ity in how strong or weak the ap­proach drive is. The world will now di­vide into ‘‘ap­proach­ers’’ and ‘‘avoiders’’.

Some peo­ple are dis­posed to ac­tively en­gage with life even un­der con­di­tions of risk, buoyed by en­thu­si­asm and ex­cite­ment, and their be­lief that be­hav­iour is highly mal­leable.

‘‘Avoiders’’ do the op­po­site, held back by cau­tion, and averse to chang­ing course un­less ev­i­dence of low risk is strong. Both pay highly se­lec­tive at­ten­tion to any in­for­ma­tion that sup­ports their own strat­egy. And the world is di­vided pretty equally be­tween the two tribes.

All at­ten­tion will be on the ‘‘ap­proach­ers’’. Like the Marines, they will be the first to ven­ture into what may be un­safe ter­ri­tory, to test the wa­ters in the

‘‘now nor­mal’’, and if the re­ports com­ing back paint a re­as­sur­ing pic­ture of the safety pre­cau­tions in place, and there is no new spike in in­fec­tion, that will em­bolden oth­ers to fol­low, and grad­u­ally the trickle of re­turn­ers will turn into a steady flow, and at a par­tic­u­lar junc­ture, there will be a tip­ping point.

This is the mo­ment when so­cial dis­ap­proval will fo­cus more on be­ing seen as ridicu­lously cau­tious. And it is at this tip­ping point that the norm changes — the whole process be­comes less in­di­vid­ual and more so­cial. All go­ing well, the wis­dom of crowds takes over — whereby each per­son mak­ing their own in­di­vid­ual de­ci­sions, based on their lo­cal knowl­edge, some­how ag­gre­gates into good col­lec­tive de­ci­sions about how to be­have.

All of those changes will largely be a bot­tom-up phe­nom­e­non. So does the Gov­ern­ment have a role? Well, yes, be­cause we rely on it to keep up­dat­ing and shar­ing the in­for­ma­tion on what is likely to be an evolv­ing and lo­cal dy­namic. Be­cause it’s only in that kind of con­text we can keep mak­ing those good de­ci­sions. We have tem­po­rar­ily whacked the mole, but un­til we have an ef­fec­tive treat­ment, an­other mole­hill will al­most in­evitably ap­pear.

Not to be too Churchilli­an about it, this is just the end of the be­gin­ning of the strug­gle against Covid-19. We are still in a dan­ger­ous dance with that wily virus.

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 ??  ?? HIGH ALERT: It’s not go­ing to be as sim­ple as be­ing re­peat­edly told to wash your hands
HIGH ALERT: It’s not go­ing to be as sim­ple as be­ing re­peat­edly told to wash your hands
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