Our reality isn’t always a calm place. Feelings of safety and peace that are so necessary for our well-being often elude us. What is happening today on a global level only goes to show how fragile our world is, and how easily we can lose control over the things we thought we had mastered.

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The current situation is threatening the stability of life as we know it, and is putting us under pressure to adopt extra protective measures. Priorities change day by day, and we need to keep up. Each one of us has to play our part seriously in combating the crisis: governments, companies, institutions, and ordinary people, whether we are in self-isolation or not.

Far from being the first, and most likely not the last pandemic in history, the new coronavirus stirs different reactions in people. The most appropriate one is, of course, the one based on moderation. Neither extreme fear, nor its opposite—extreme carelessness—can help us deal with the situation in the right way. Unfortunately, both of these extremes are to be found in the public’s behaviour lately.

Wishful thinking versus realistic optimism

Fear can be self-induced or engendered by negative news in the media. On the other hand, indifference can be explained based on what is known as “wishful thinking”.

Wishful thinking is a common flaw, which could be associated, in its initial stages, with unjustified optimism, but in its more advanced stages, is associated with harmful self-delusion. This type of thinking appeals to our emotions, and makes us reject the information and arguments which stand in opposition to our personal convictions. It can lead us to form opinions and make decisions which are the complete opposite of what is real, concrete, scientifically proven—simply because we dislike what reasonableness dictates. How many of us have not interpreted facts and situations on the basis of our preconceived ideas?

The way in which the events of the past few weeks have influenced, or failed to influence, people’s behaviour, indicates that many are in a complete state of denial about the current situation. Presumably, this is connected with this “psychological strategy” of wishful thinking, which helps us seemingly dodge painful truths by denying them.

Not everyone is convinced that the recommendations issued by the authorities are indeed relevant or appropriate to put us on the right track. Not everyone takes the statistics regarding the virus seriously, even though the evidence is everywhere. Not everyone dismisses conspiracy theories.

We may be tempted to minimise the importance of the warnings and restrictions set by the authorities, simply because we want our routine, our habits, and our set plans to follow their course. We even doubt the truthfulness of official information, suspecting that there are hidden reasons why restrictive measures are being applied.

Wishful thinking is closely tied to our convictions and prejudices, so much so that it is almost impossible to remove it from our lives. Even if it works as a defence mechanism, we must understand that day-dreaming makes us more vulnerable, especially in situations where we must be clear headed: situations such as this one.

In order to avoid falling prey to this type of thinking, without at the same time becoming pessimistic, we should try to:

Confront our uninformed opinions with information from reliable sources

Despite the proliferation of news, whether fake news or news that targets a sensitive audience, there is still information coming from official or specialised sources, which can help us understand the bigger picture, and react accordingly. Even if the information is in line with what we wish would happen to us in the future, the actions we take must cultivate responsibility towards ourselves, and towards those around us.

Search for balance in our choices and behaviour

Crises have always led to extreme reactions in society. While it may seem extreme, stocking up on flour and oil by those who are careful, is a completely different approach from those who choose to go for walks and disregard the need to self-isolate and respect total lockdown. As the high number of fines being issued indicates, extreme carelessness in reaction to our present crisis is rife.

Fear versus carelessness. Obedience versus skepticism. Engagement versus indifference. Thinking in extremes generates extreme reactions, and people who act in a purely self-serving way. These people focus only on their own wishes and needs, real or imaginary. On the other hand, there are those whose behaviour is more balanced, taking the common good and the common interest into account, and which centres on the needs of the wider group.

Keep in mind that prevention is better than cure

Not everyone is convinced that the recommendations issued by the authorities are indeed relevant or appropriate to put us on the right track. Not everyone takes the statistics regarding the virus seriously, even though the evidence is everywhere. Not everyone dismisses conspiracy theories.

In some cases, opposition is costlier than conformity. As the saying goes: “Better safe than sorry.” The huge variety of unknown elements hovering over the destiny of each and every one of us, does not allow us to be careless about the choices we make, because they impact our daily lives.

Cultivate a justified form of optimism

In the economy of wishful thinking, optimism often comes from denying reality. This pandemic is a negative development, and unquestionably affects all fronts. It could, if we let it, destroy any fragile bit of optimism we have. But uncertainty should not chase away hope. Any hardship we might face is an opportunity to exercise our willpower, our faith, and our courage.

Without darkness, we can never truly enjoy the light.

Check out all our COVID-19 coverage. We update constantly.

Genia holds a Master’s degree in counselling within social services.