How do you relate to risks? Do you think of yourself as risk averse, risk tolerant, risk seeking, or some mixture? Is your approach different for physical, emotional, and financial risks?
Risk tolerance is affected by current resources. Can you recover from a bad outcome, physically, emotionally, and/or financially? Do you have friends who cheer you on? Does your Inner Nurturer support you? Do you have an Inner Critic who yells about mistakes in an effort to keep you safe?
Nature and nurture
We seem to have a basic attitude toward risk built in from the start. Some small children charge forward, where others pause cautiously. When we experience risks that are matched to our abilities as we grow, we gain confidence in our choices.
As children, we learn not only about risk in general, but about the specific risks and dangers in our environment. Whether the dangers are being struck by a car, or being lost in the woods, or being shamed by a parent, we learn to recognize and manage them. We acquire strategies like “look both ways,” or “carry a compass,” or “never show vulnerability.” Rigid strategies like that last one limit us more than flexible strategies like the first two.
Ideally the adults around us teach us to evaluate risks, and support us when our choices do not turn out as we hoped. We absorb the ways they interact with risk in their lives. When there is enough safety, we internalize that it is okay to be a clumsy beginner, and we can learn and improve our strategies through practice and play.
If we suffered abuse or other catastrophic experiences, and we were blamed in some way, it skews our perception of risk. “I did something, maybe I’m not even sure what, and the outcome was that bad.” We might become more risk averse to avoid more bad outcomes, or more risk seeking in an effort to gain mastery over the trauma.
Risks vary widely with our level of privilege as well as our individual circumstances. As Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” In the US, white people are afraid of property damage. Black people are afraid of being murdered by police.
When we move to a new job or a new neighborhood or a new country, our risks change in both subtle and obvious ways. We spend a lot of energy assessing the new environment and acquiring new strategies by trial and error, which is part of what makes change difficult. It takes time to adapt.
The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed our risks, even though our surroundings have not changed. Suddenly we are coping with an invisible deadly threat and uncertain, changing information about it. We have to sift through conflicting news reports to piece together strategies that work for us.
Because the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be contagious before symptoms appear, and then it can take up to two weeks for the illness to become more severe, we do not receive immediate feedback to adjust our strategies. How do we protect others? How do we protect ourselves? Did we already have COVID-19? Tests are hard to get and false negatives are common, so we keep wondering after having mild or moderate symptoms.
We naturally look to people around us for cues, subconsciously assuming that they must be more experienced, but this coronavirus is new for all of us at the same time. Our beliefs about the pandemic are affected by whom we trust both locally and at a distance to give us accurate information.
The uncertainty and conflicting information are triggering for anyone who has been affected by gaslighting in the past. There is no consensus, so we see people around us with very different strategies and evaluations of danger. Some wear masks, some do not. Some go about their lives as if nothing has changed. Some do not go out at all.
Some places are overwhelmed with cases, and some have very few. It can feel surreal to take the pandemic seriously when it is invisible. We worry about overreacting or underreacting, “panic-mongering” or endangering people’s lives, including our own. In addition to all the other struggles of an unprecedented world-wide pandemic, we feel shame at our inability to “do it right.”
Be a beginner
Allow yourself to be a beginner at handling this pandemic. Pause, take a breath, and give yourself appreciation for all the discernments, decisions, and adjustments you have already made. Let yourself feel the nervousness of not knowing how to “do it right,” separately from all the other fears that may be there. Give that part some kind attention and empathy, the way you would sit with a child who is nervous about the first day of school.
Allow yourself to be affected by past trauma. Embrace the person you are in this moment, with your entire history of experiences, both positive and negative. Allow yourself to be reminded of other times you have been isolated, or crowded in with people you are not comfortable with, or struggled to get access to food. Use the same/different game to distinguish what happened then from what is happening now.
Focus on now
If you feel overwhelmed, narrow your focus to the thinnest slice of now, as Robyn Posin says. Let future-you handle future situations, and focus on what needs your attention in this moment. Perhaps you have already made all the decisions you currently need to make, and read all the news you currently need to read, and you can take a break.
Make room for your choices to be imperfect. You have limited, incomplete, possibly inaccurate information. You are doing the best you can with the resources you have. Let that be enough.
Risks of catching COVID-19
As of June 1, 2020, current understanding is that the major risk of catching COVID-19 is through inhaling air that a contagious person exhales for more than 10-15 minutes. Talking, shouting, singing, coughing, and sneezing expel the breath with increasing force and therefore expel more viruses over a longer distance.
Unlike bacteria, viruses do not replicate outside the body. They might fall on a surface, but the concentration of live viruses decreases quickly over time. Touching a contaminated surface is a much smaller risk than inhaling contaminated air.
COVID-19 is a dangerous illness. While the risk of dying is relatively low for a young, healthy person, it is higher for older people and those with existing heart and lung issues. COVID-19 can also cause blood clots, strokes, and long-term debilitating fatigue and lung damage.
For the sake of others, wear a mask whenever you leave the house. For your own sake, avoid breathing inside air close to anyone not from your household as much as possible until we have a vaccine and/or effective treatment.
Conversations around risk
Take some time to notice your attitude toward risk in general, and then toward this pandemic. What risks, specifically, do you want to minimize? How do you evaluate your sources of information to make decisions? Who strongly influences you? Whom do you influence? Are there people you are regularly sharing air with? Have conversations with them about your perceptions and decisions around risk.
- “What False Negatives Can Tell Us About Oregon’s COVID-19 Numbers” by Erin Ross, May 26, 2020.
- “How Covid-19 Really Spreads” by Robert Roy Britt, May 27, 2020.
- “Long after the illness is gone, the damage from coronavirus may remain” by Peter Fimrite, May 31, 2020.
- “The Thinnest Slice of Now” by Robyn Posin.