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.
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?