By Natalie Taylor
During these times of quarantining, some people have been doing things they normally would not do. They cut or color their hair in odd ways, wear outrageous masks, indulge in impulse-buying, cook strange dishes, get tattoos, or take up bad habits like smoking or drinking. Most importantly, they are doing things that are out of character for them and, in some cases, may have negative repercussions for themselves or others.
Some are suggesting that it is not simply boredom leading people toward questionable actions. Instead, it has to do with our willingness, or not, to take risks. Stress is a major factor in how we deal with risk. We are wired to react immediately to imminent danger; it’s an impulse that can save our life. Think of what happens when you hear an explosion—whether it’s benign fireworks or a gas tank. Something like an electric current runs through your body, placing you on alert and ready to fight or run away, the instinctive “fight or flight” mechanism common to all living beings. The sudden flooding of hormones the body releases in the face of danger is the trigger for this response. But what happens when we are faced with continuous stress about potential danger that causes these hormones to be released time and again? Because of the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, people are facing daily uncertainty and fear. This is akin to what Londoners experienced in 1940 when German enemy forces bombed the city for 57 days and nights. For almost one year now, we have all been living with a frightening, bafflingly unpredictable, and life-threatening enemy on a global scale, and the enemy is invisible.
Experts explain that this lengthy, continuous exposure to a hidden danger has affected how we handle risk. Uncertainty is one of the greatest stress-inducing factors. Because we thrive on certainty and routine, continuous disruption of normal day-to-day living has an effect on individuals as well as society as a whole. A neuroscientist at Vassar College explains that we need to get rid of these stress hormones, and one way of doing that is by taking what she calls micro-risks. By doing small, controlled acts that are not part of your norm, whether it’s shaving your head, getting a pet snake, or a mailman dressing as a knight on his route. They are all part of giving yourself a sense of control in what feels like an unhinged world. You just need to tap into your sober sense to assess what you are doing and avoid long-term negative effects.