Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Four tips to practice good mental hygiene during the coronavirus outbreak


Just a few days ago my son’s col­lege, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton, announced it would be can­celling all in-per­son class­es and finals to help con­tain the spread of the coro­n­avirus. One con­firmed on-cam­pus case prompt­ed the university’s response.

Though the uni­ver­si­ty will incur high costs—they have to deep-clean the whole cam­pus, for example—I, for one, am tru­ly grate­ful for their swift action and putting stu­dents first. It’s one of the many ways that I feel cared for in the midst of this cri­sis, and one of many car­ing acts that I expect to see in the weeks ahead.

Why expect more coop­er­a­tion and com­pas­sion in the face of an epi­dem­ic? Because, con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, crises often tend to bring out the best in peo­ple. A report that looked at how peo­ple respond­ed dur­ing the Sep­tem­ber 11th Twin Tow­er attacks showed that peo­ple bent over back­wards to help oth­ers escape, some­times at great per­son­al risk to them­selves. Oth­er reports on the after­math of nat­ur­al dis­as­ters show that strangers will stick out their necks for each oth­er to help.

While it’s true that some­times dis­as­ters can lead to a minor­i­ty tak­ing advan­tage of the situation—for exam­ple, steal­ing people’s pos­ses­sions when they have to leave their house—this is not a com­mon response, much as it grabs head­lines. Instead, when we face a com­mon ene­my, like an epi­dem­ic, we are more like­ly to pull togeth­er for the ben­e­fit of every­one.

Notice how many young and healthy peo­ple are tak­ing seri­ous­ly the need to wash their hands fre­quent­ly, cov­er their mouths when they cough, stay home when sick, or wear masks when in pub­lic. Sure, no one wants to get sick—but, at the same time, no one wants to be respon­si­ble for mak­ing oth­ers sick.

In fact, research shows that pro­tect­ing oth­ers is a huge moti­va­tor for doing the right thing. For exam­ple, one study looked at what prompts hand­wash­ing behav­ior in hos­pi­tal doc­tors and nurs­es. Researchers found that signs say­ing, “Hand hygiene pre­vents patients from catch­ing dis­eases,” were more effec­tive at prompt­ing hand­wash­ing than signs sim­ply say­ing, “Hand hygiene pre­vents you from catch­ing dis­eases.” In oth­er words, appeal­ing to the health care work­ers’ altru­is­tic care for their patients was more effec­tive than appeal­ing to their self-inter­est.

In fact, it may sim­ply be human nature to be kind and help­ful when oth­ers need us. In one recent study, chil­dren only four to five years old who were told that resist­ing a treat would ben­e­fit anoth­er child were bet­ter able to delay grat­i­fi­ca­tion than chil­dren told their actions would only affect them­selves. Sim­i­lar­ly, babies as young as 19 months old were will­ing to give food away to some­one who appeared to need it, even when hun­gry them­selves.

Of course, not every­one acts altru­is­ti­cal­ly in these sit­u­a­tions. So, what makes it more like­ly they will, and how can we use that to our advan­tage? Here are four ways we can encour­age more altru­ism for fight­ing the virus.

1. Stay calm and focused

It’s easy to be lost in fear when dis­as­ter strikes. How­ev­er, it doesn’t help any­one to stir up pan­ic about the sit­u­a­tion, because we don’t think as clear­ly when we are in emer­gency mode. You can see how this has played out already, as peo­ple have been stock­pil­ing masks and cre­at­ing a short­age that could affect the peo­ple who tru­ly need them—those who are sick and need masks to avoid spread­ing the dis­ease to the rest of us.

How can we stay calmer and make wis­er choic­es? One way is to use what­ev­er tools you have at your dis­pos­al for keep­ing a cool head—like prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness, which has been shown to both lessen emo­tion­al reac­tiv­i­ty and help us make bet­ter deci­sions. We might take a walk in the park or near­by woods and let nature soothe us. Or we could talk to a friend—a calm friend, that is—who can help us reduce our anx­i­ety.

Of course, our nor­mal ways of con­nect­ing socially—like singing togeth­er at a con­cert or going to large parties—may have to change. But what­ev­er we can do to main­tain an air of calm, and to spread it to those around us, the bet­ter. After all, our emo­tions tend to be con­ta­gious in our social cir­cles, and we should do our best to keep fear and pan­ic con­tained.

2. Pay attention to those doing the right thing

There will always be self­less efforts in a disaster—people who sac­ri­fice them­selves for the good of oth­ers. Think of the health care work­ers who are treat­ing peo­ple infect­ed with this virus at great per­son­al risk. Or those infect­ed with the virus who vol­un­tar­i­ly iso­late them­selves for weeks to pro­tect the pub­lic.

When we hear sto­ries of these peo­ple, we feel what is called moral elevation—a warm feel­ing inside that inspires us, fuel­ing opti­mism and a desire to act altru­is­ti­cal­ly our­selves. While the temp­ta­tion might be to focus on fear and every­thing going wrong, we can redi­rect our atten­tion to those who are doing the right thing, which will lead us to be bet­ter cit­i­zens our­selves.

3. Show gratitude

One of the kind­est things we can do is to say “thank you” to those who are doing what they can to fight the out­break. As with my son’s uni­ver­si­ty, it doesn’t hurt to send a mes­sage of thanks to peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tions that are doing the right thing—whether it’s a tour group that offers refunds for can­celled trips, the neigh­bor who deliv­ers a spare mask to you, or viral experts who give you straight-up infor­ma­tion on how to stay safe.

When we show grat­i­tude toward oth­ers, we let them know that their actions mat­ter, which encour­ages more of the same kind of behavior—not only toward the grate­ful per­son but to oth­ers. Cre­at­ing a cycle of altru­ism is help­ful when we are faced with a chal­lenge that affects us all, help­ing to fos­ter trust in each oth­er and care for each other’s plight.

4. Remember our common bonds

When we are fear­ful, our first instinct might be to cast blame on oth­ers or to indulge in prej­u­dice toward groups we see as respon­si­ble. News reports already show that some peo­ple of Asian descent in the Unit­ed States are find­ing them­selves shunned or the vic­tims of racist pro­fil­ing, sim­ply because the virus appears to have orig­i­nat­ed in Chi­na. Though we might ratio­nal­ly know that no one per­son or coun­try can be blamed for a viral out­break, our minds still seek sim­ple expla­na­tions.

Research sug­gests that when we rec­og­nize our com­mon human­i­ty and show com­pas­sion, we are more like­ly to pull togeth­er and to solve issues that may be com­plex in nature. You can start by giv­ing your­self some com­pas­sion, which can help you become more will­ing to admit mis­takes and take steps to cor­rect them. This is impor­tant, as human error can be cost­ly when there is a viral out­break, and we need to work togeth­er to learn from our mis­takes.

Of course, all of these guide­lines don’t sup­plant the impor­tance of prac­tic­ing good hygiene. We need to con­tin­ue to fre­quent­ly wash our hands and avoid touch­ing our faces, so that we can lessen the chance of infect­ing our­selves and oth­ers. But we also should remem­ber our men­tal hygiene—staying calm our­selves, being grate­ful espe­cial­ly to those doing the right thing, and remem­ber­ing our com­mon human­i­ty. In this way, we can help to make the world safer for all of us.

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

To Learn More:

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Search in our Archives

Follow us and Engage via…

RSS Feed

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)