When faced with shocking or emotionally painful information, one of the most common reflexive responses is “no” – or “you’re kidding me”. It’s a way of stepping back from the initial impact.
This response (called “denial”) is the first of the five stages of grief™ – a standard psychological defense mechanism. It is among the most primitive defense mechanisms, mimicking behaviors created in early childhood. We naturally use denial to initially cope with things that make us feel vulnerable or without control – such as illness, addiction, violence, financial problems, or even impending natural disaster.
Features of denial include refusing to acknowledge a difficult situation; trying not to face the facts of a problem; or downplaying possible consequences of the issue. These things may be OK for managing an initial shock, but clinging to them might prevent someone from getting help, such as medical treatment or counseling, or dealing with problems that can spiral out of control. Overdosing on any remedy can result in a bad outcome, as it did for Tony Green.
“Folks tend to look at what has happened elsewhere and then they make up some kind of magical reason why it’s not going to happen to them.” – Jennifer Nuzzo, epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security
From denial to denialISM
Denialism is a systematic avoidance of painful reality. It’s a vision where nothing and no one can be trusted. If you believe you are being constantly lied to, paradoxically you are in danger of accepting untruths just because they confirm your suspicions.
Denialism is a mix of corrosive doubt and corrosive credulity.
Denialist ideas overlap: Climate science deniers are likely to be COVID deniers and also to deny the facts of systemic racism, and often also to deny the holocaust and even evolution science. The need of denialists to explain-away evidence of these things leads to the overlap between denialists and conspiracists. So, climate science deniers often believe in conspiracies by the world’s scientists and windmill salesmen. COVID deniers often cite a “plandemic” conspiracy theory ostensibly to unseat President Trump. Deniers of systemic racism talk about a reverse racism or liberal takeover conspiracy to enslave white people. Etc.
Ironically, believers in COVID conspiracy theories are themselves dupes of an actual conspiracy where confusion is the message …
Military strategist John Boyd wrote about impairing an enemy’s ability to orient themselves to reality by introducing uncertainty and novelty, and triggering stress. So, disinformation campaigns are used to promote unfounded conspiracy theories that sow confusion and division within an opposition.
For example, during the 1980’s the KGB ran a disinformation campaign spreading the idea that US scientists created the HIV virus that causes AIDS to exterminate gays and certain minorities. It was called Operation INFEKTION.
And, the Bill Gates corona virus conspiracy launched from a website run by Russia’s Defense Ministry to promote the idea that Bill Gates helped create the virus. It claims that only people of “the Mongoloid race” can contract COVID-19.
Agnieszka Legucka from the Polish Institute of International Affairs says “Since the beginning of 2020, [Russians] have also been spreading disinformation about the coronavirus with the aim of inducing distrust in public institutions and aggravating the public health crisis in the EU.” She says one of the sources of such fake news is the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian troll farm owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.
Observers from the EU Commission have analyzed over 80 different reports containing false or misleading information about coronavirus published by official Russian state media sites and platforms and authors with close ties to the Kremlin.
In a recent article, EUvsDisinfo explained the pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets are not attempting to “sell an idea”, but rather to confuse the audience. For instance, The Oriental Review, an e-journal with ties to the Kremlin, wrote “When the panic is over, COVID-19 will have killed less people than a normal flu.” – arguing that current fears are unfounded. But, Geopolitica, another Russian e-journal claims the opposite, writing that when the virus finishes its “victory march across the planet” it will have destroyed the existing world order.
Meantime, US State department officials tasked with combating Russian disinformation told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that false personas were being used on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to advance Russian talking points. Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia said: “Russia’s intent is to sow discord and undermine US institutions and alliances from within, including through covert and coercive malign influence campaigns,”
COVID denialists who are fans of virus-related conspiracy theories, anti-mask theories, and the like are themselves actual participants in a real conspiracy for which there is actual evidence. And, with their help, it’s succeeding at harming their neighbors and their country.
Alan Moore said: “Conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy, or the gray aliens, or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is far more frightening. Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.”
A scary conspiracy is less scary than scary chaos.
People would rather an evil genius be in control than have nobody in control. The need for certainty and a sense of control is inescapable. Losing these induces panic, anger, and age regression. When we see people acting “childishly”, it’s because they have been regressed into child-like patterns. They are seeing simplistic answers; engaging in magical fairy-tale thinking; believing in monster-like things; having wild emotional swings; and engaging in literal tantrums. They are not behaving “like” a child, but literally “AS” a child.
They’ve just succumbed to the emotionally torturous circumstances sooner than others will. And, here’s where others are vulnerable to their own denial – that they could or would ever wind up in the same place – having child-like meltdown in the grocery store. The reality is that it can happen to anyone.
As we accept the reality of loss or difficulty we can begin to find resources and take actions that will address it in the real world. We begin a process of progress that makes us stronger and more capable. As we proceed, the feelings we were using denial to shelter from will begin to resurface. And, their initial return can be challenging as we move forward into managing reality. We will also regain our mature, adult patterns of understanding, emoting, and interacting.
Know that it’s OK to need an emotional rest and say, “I just can’t think about this right now.” Then, keep in mind to do it safely, and remember that denial should always be a temporary thing. It won’t change the reality: Just catch your breath and come back to dealing with the problem. It isn’t always easy to tell if denial is holding you back. If you feel stuck or if someone you trust suggests you’re in denial, try these strategies:
- Open up to a trusted friend or loved one and express your fears and emotions.
- Honestly examine what you fear. How much do you really understand it? Who are the real experts, and what do most of them say?
- Think about the actions you can take, and engage in doing some of them.
- Participate in a support group.
On our own, we want to manage our intake of “news” and social media – things that can corrode our sense of certainty and control. Those things can trigger regression that makes us more vulnerable rather than less vulnerable to denial, conspiracy theories, and bad choices.
It’s also useful to avoid conspiracy-theory rabbit holes. Conspiracy theories lack public, objective and verifiable proof. If an idea can’t be tested, and if you can’t think of any evidence that would disprove it, you’re probably in a conspiracy theory. Because real science builds theories specifically to be tested and challenged.
Past those defensive actions, it’s helpful to engage in self-care like mindfulness practices, exercise, and keeping a regular schedule even if you’re in lock-down. And, if we are in lock-down, it’s a good time to learn a new skill or advance an old one. This occupies the mind and curiosity with useful information, and gives us positive action to take.
In any survival situation, an important thing to do is make a list of available resources. This has both practical and emotional benefits. Make a list of resources for yourself, and review it. This can include financial resources, first aid supplies, tools, even friends.
This brings us to socializing and emotional support. Get in touch with friends regularly, but do it safely. Video calls or phone calls are preferable during the pandemic. Make some notes of topics OTHER THAN the pandemic or frightening political issues to talk about. Things you can take action on are most useful. Ideally, share some creative work of some kind because creativity is one of the best ways to experience focus and control.
If you can’t make progress dealing with a stressful situation on your own – if you’re stuck in the denial phase – consider talking to a mental health professional. They can help you find healthy ways to cope with the situation rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist or sliding into a conspiracy mindset.
Give them space, speak in a calm and reassuring, rather than angry or demanding tone. Don’t shame them for being stupid – that’s likely to worsen their response.
If you aren’t experiencing these kinds of problems, try to be understanding of others who are using denial to try to cope. Understand that age regression is real and a natural response to these circumstances. Reassure people as you would a child but without talking down to them. Realize they are unaware of their age regression (that they’re behaving AS a child).
Share with them the things you’re doing for your own health and sanity. This focuses on actions and control, which should be helpful.
In conversation, talk about the things that are certain and provable with evidence. Talk about the things that remain within their control. If they’re in a store without a mask, they might like to know they can get curb-side service (often free), or even doorstep delivery. They might like to know about outdoor places they can breathe freely without a mask.
If they are grasping at conspiracy theories to try to explain things, and those theories are leading them to unsafe behaviors, do not let them endanger you. Confronting the nonsense head-on isn’t usually the best strategy, and unwinding it can be very sticky. You might consider asking two kinds of questions:
1. If the scientist has a theory, what evidence would prove it wrong?
Let them explain it. Then:
2. What evidence would prove the conspiracy theory wrong?
If there’s no possible or practical way to disprove it, then it’s obvious that the reasoning is different. And, that may be a point on which to begin loosening the death-grip on the nonsense. As a person emerges from denialism, they will regain emotional maturity and the ability to process and evaluate evidence.
In the end, if they are burrowed too far into denial and conspiracy theories to maintain basic infection control measures – or if their proselytizing of conspiracy are intolerable, you may have to manage your interaction with them. Above all, keep yourself safe, both physically and mentally.