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The Reframe We All Need To Get Through Coronavirus

This advice from a professor of Infectious Disease Modelling was widely shared because it made sense for slowing the spread of the virus. But the benefits don’t stop there. This post looks at the psychological benefits of acting ‘as if’ you already have coronavirus, from an NLP perspective.

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A few days ago the BBC’s Newsnight programme asked Graham Medley, Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, what advice he had for people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

His advice was essentially a ‘figure/ground’ reframe that you should flip how you would normally see the situation.

“Most people have a fear of acquiring the virus. I think a good way of doing it is to imagine that you do have the virus, and change your behaviour so that you’re not transmitting it,” he said.

The advice went – yes I’m going say it – ‘viral’ on Twitter because it’s easy to implement, and it works. If everyone were able to adopt it, the virus wouldn’t be able to jump from one host to another and the number of new cases would soon start falling.

So, it’s great advice and clearly we should all take it. What may not be so obvious at first glance is the beneficial effect on our mindset. I believe that viewing the situation in the way Professor Medley advocates will help you reduce anxiety and regain your sense of agency.

Let’s look first at the implications of the way that many people might understandably view the situation, which we could sum up as “I’m not infected yet, as far as I know, but anyone else might be.”

(Actually there is another possible attitude which some younger people have unfortunately shown: “I’m young, I’m healthy, I won’t get it – or if I do it won’t be serious, and I’m not bothered about anyone else.” This one I hope is on its way out as it now appears that COVID-19 can be quite serious or even fatal for some younger patients as well, even if they don’t have pre-existing illnesses.)

What are the implications of thinking that you don’t have the virus yet, but you might catch it from any other person you encounter – or from some insufficiently sanitised object that you happen to touch?

First, you would regard other people as a potential threat. Consequently, any time you see another person there would be at least a twinge of fear, perhaps accompanied by internal dialogue along the lines of “Must get away from them!”

Or maybe, if they approach too closely, you might feel anger as well – “How dare they threaten me by stepping inside my two-metre exclusion zone!”

So other people would be regarded as threats, perhaps even as enemies, and the impulse would be to hide yourself away. When you think of other people as enemies or threats, you’re not going to care what happens to them, which would make panic buying of sanitiser gel, masks, and toilet rolls a rational response, rather than something to be ashamed of.

Most of all, this viewpoint – where others could do something to you (infecting you) so the most sensible thing to do is hide away from them – leads to a mindset of being at the “effect” end of the cause and effect equation: the world acts on you, rather than the other way round, and your ‘locus of control’ is outside of you.

Being “at effect” like this leads to a feeling of powerlessness and even of being a victim. It also leads to making excuses for not acting at your best; if how you feel and what happens to you is caused by external forces acting on you, then whatever happens, and even whatever you do, is not your responsibility.

Let’s contrast this with how the world appears when you act in line with Professor Medley’s reframe. He tells us to not to act like someone who is avoiding contracting the virus, but instead as someone who already has the virus and is trying not to pass it onto others.

Rather than focusing on ourselves (preserving our own supposed uninfected state), our attention is now more outside ourselves (preserving the good health of others). This naturally translates into caring more about other people, and makes selfish behaviour less likely.

We’re still keeping out distance from people, but this is now in order to avoid how we might unwittingly act on them by transmitting the virus, rather than on how they might act on us.

So our locus of control is back within ourselves. We have choices about how we act, and we are choosing to act in the best interests of other people as well as ourselves.

What’s more, we are actually doing something about our predicament, something that will make a difference. In the same way that people with a problem usually start to feel better as soon as they have made their first appointment with a therapist, we regain a sense of agency.

The fact that we get an additional feelgood factor because we are choosing to act for the benefit of other people as much as for ourselves is an added bonus.

We are at the “cause” end of the cause and effect equation, taking responsibility for our actions and how we feel. We are no longer worried about what others might do to us; rather, we feel like we are back in the driving seat, because we have choices we can take.

Note that the desirable results of acting ‘as if’ you were infectious don’t depend on whether you actually are. You might be infected, or you might not – but there isn’t really a downside to assuming and acting as if you are. As ever in NLP, we don’t care if a belief is true, only if it’s useful (this is not the same as choosing to ignore evidence; if your ‘map of the world’ is too far from reality, it will usually lead you astray eventually).

So, I encourage you to take Graham Medley’s advice while the pandemic lasts. It’s also worth remembering that it won’t last forever. So it could be worth asking yourself in what other contexts you could usefully apply the principle of ‘flipping’ a commonly-held attitude, and thinking about what you could do, rather than what could be done to you?

5 comments

  1. Martin

    Makes sense. Thanks for writing it down. I already shared the articel in three communities.

    Btw. some years ago I met friends in Taipei and in Hong Kong… and from my point of view it seems they already use this frame in their everyday life. Even in “virus free” times.

    With kind regards.

  2. Andy Smith

    Thanks Martin. Yes, I wonder if this frame is part of the reason why mask wearing was so prevalent in East and SE Asia, even before COVID-19?

  3. Rosie O'Hara

    Thanks for this Andy. It’s good food for thought and I think has inspired me to write something as well, maybe. We are in Turkey, we spend the winter here now and currently as we are both over a certain age we are confined to the house and have been for 8 days. Not a hardship as we are the only ones in a row of four houses, including 8 apartments, we have a garden and look out onto a pomegranate orchard. Facebook (not my favourite place (but currently few forms of social media are favoured by me as it’s testing to trawl through what is true and what is not) is an important method of communication over here. This means you ‘have to’ be on Facebook to learn what is happening, what restrictions are in place etc. , in healthier times what is happening. This Facebook life has lead me to observe others language patterns and also the behaviours (since 2016 I’m a Master the LAB Profile (R) as well as all the other qualifications). In fact I think I will write something on my blog.
    Anyway crux of the matter is, I have behaved for three weeks now, ‘as if’ I might have the virus and worked on keeping away from others, not always easy, plus keeping myself safe and hoping to make others aware (interesting that one having been told at one point ‘oh we’re safe here that doesn’t happen in our area!!!’) I’ve struggled until the last couple of days to make my husband understand that we could be carriers and we need to safeguard others as well as ourselves (I know he needs a period of time to be convinced).
    However we have plenty to occupy ourselves here and although we would rather be out and about and riding our bikes, we appreciate that we safe in our home and also that shopping for people of a certain age has been organised and we just need to message someone and it will be delivered.

  4. Andy Smith

    Hi Rosie,

    Nice to hear from you! Glad you’ve got stuff to occupy you and that your community is looking out for you.

    Facebook’s not so bad if you stick to the good bits – specifically you’d be very welcome to join the Positive Change Methods group at https://facebook.com/groups/PositiveChangeMethods !

  5. Martin

    I went to many places during the past 13 years. And as curious as I am, I asked some of them about the masks.

    Partly they did it because of the smog (2007 in Beijing).

    But, in other places (HK and Taiwan) people told me they did it to protect the other people from their own germs. I guess it is valued as a way of being polite, such as not being too noisy in the subway when talking on the phone. Also, they had some previous experiences with viruses and already learned that it absolutely makes sense in such crowded cities.

    In southeast Asian places between Bali and Bangkok I did not really observe people wearing masks. Maybe it was just a very small number, or maybe my perception already changed.

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