In the week since I drafted this article, violence has erupted across the U.S. and here in Rochester following the murder of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis. I need to respond to this, and I know instant responses are our “new normal.” But my instinct is to take my time. If the resulting reflections might contribute here, I will share them with you later. In the meantime, I send my wishes for peace and safety to you and to everyone out there, whatever their stance or circumstance.
Amidst the barrage of information sources around you, is it possible to find information that can calm you rather than increasing your stress level? I think so…but you will need patience and discernment.
Today is the second of June—my sister Elizabeth’s birthday. Growing up in Indiana, we’d celebrate this special occasion with a backyard cookout. My dad grilled hamburgers and hotdogs over charcoal for a small crowd of close family friends. We’d play croquet and get sticky eating watermelon and birthday cake in the June heat.
Here in upstate New York, the weather has turned warm at last. After nearly two months of enforced time at home, we have finally started the first phase of re-opening. I’ve begun to think of having a friend or two over for an “real” visit—outside and socially distanced, of course, but in person. But the details daunt me. Is it safe to serve food? At what point do we all stop wearing masks? Under what conditions might it be OK to eat together inside?
We’ll all be doing our best to answer these kinds of questions in the coming months. But I’m guessing it will be a long, uncertain process. The consequences of our choices could be trivial—or dire. How does one wrap one’s brain around such a dauntingly wide range of possibilities?
In the midst of all this pondering, I received an email from my mother with an article addressing this topic of re-opening. It’s the single most helpful article I’ve read during this pandemic, full of facts collected by contact tracers from actual incidents of COVID-19 transmission. The article is entitled The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them by Dr. Erin Bromage.
Bromage is a comparative immunologist and Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Whether or not his article is of interest to you for its subject matter, I suggest you take a look at it as an excellent example of the kind of information that can calm you, not overwhelm you. I make a conscious effort to focus my reading time on this kind of article, rather than the more sensational daily news reports. Here are three reasons why:
1—We need unbiased information
It’s impossible to be a human being and not have biases. However, if an author is willing to acknowledge their point of view and their motivations, I can take those into account. In this case, I appreciate Bromage’s humility. He clearly lays out his qualifications and limitations. He didn’t do the original research: he’s translating the language of those who did do it so the rest of us can understand it. Originally, he and his students collected information about the coronavirus outbreak in China, for a college course. On his “About the Professor” page, he writes,
This past semester, I taught a class on Ecology of Infectious Disease to undergraduate students. I always like to have a current disease example as a common thread throughout the course. So in January, when I was putting the syllabus for my course together, I saw a pathogen emerging in China and decided to incorporate it. Since early January my students and I have been developing and updating a huge notice board of information outside my laboratory on the new research findings to track the pathogen’s progression.
Bromage and his students didn’t know they were tracking the beginnings of a major pandemic. They were collecting COVID-19 data for learning reasons, not political ones. The resulting observation-based, factual information is of even greater value at a time when the facts of the pandemic are being politicized here in the US and in other countries.
Why is it so hard to find unbiased news? Our innate negativity bias is partly to blame. Negativity bias means we pay more attention to scary news. Inevitably, media sources take advantage of this human tendency by highlighting information that sounds frightening or shocking, or that focuses on blame and fault-finding. Fear and outrage motivate people to click on links and read articles, and clicks earn money. It’s a rare article that, like Bromage’s, is written solely to convey information.
2—We need specific facts to help us make our own decisions
Dr. Bromage’s article originated as a series of Facebook posts he wrote for his family and friends, to help them stay informed. I think it’s no coincidence that this article and other ones like it have been shared thousands of times: we are hungry for factual, usable information, and here we find a great deal of it.
The author and his students have collected a number of incidents in which the virus was transmitted. He describes the precise conditions, and the resulting numbers of people who got ill. I found this extremely helpful: I can take all this information, digest it, then extrapolate it to apply to the complex variety of situations I will be encountering here as I begin to venture out more in the coming weeks. How risky is it to go to the grocery store? Not very, as it turns out. A gas station bathroom? Not so good.
3—We need to protect ourselves from the stress of constant media exposure
Mental health experts around the world are recommending people limit their media exposure to lower stress. For those of us who are highly sensitive, this is even more important. When I read news pieces that focus on speculation without offering actionable facts or strategies, my stress level goes up. Why? Because my deep-processing HSP mind instantly starts to generate possibilities, connotations, implications, and ramifications. I am leery of adding speculative fuel to that mental fire.
On the other hand, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. So I strictly limit my intake of blow-by-blow daily news updates, while keeping an eye out for articles like Bromage’s, that provide me with a thoughtful, substantive, bigger-picture look at the facts about COVID-19 and its transmission. I’ve even put out a standing request to friends and family to pass along this kind of article when they see one.
I invite you to think back over the past few weeks. Do you recall particular articles or programs about the pandemic that left you feeling less stressed and more empowered? Ponder your list to get a sense of the kind of information that will calm you, not overwhelm you, as you navigate the tricky, news-flooded waters of post-pandemic life.
P.S. Happy Birthday, Elizabeth. I send love to you and to Mom and Dad, knowing you are visiting them today. As soon as I get the gas station bathroom thing figured out, I’ll start plotting how best to make the 620-mile trek to Indiana for a visit myself.