This Is Your Brain On Stories And Movies About Pandemics

Jenna Birch

Maybe you can’t stop reading about COVID-19, from the new research studies to the political developments surrounding the disease. Or perhaps you binge-watched both “Outbreak” and “Contagion” back-to-back (which was a very popular thing to do in March, AKA 10 lifetimes ago), and then dove straight into Netflix’s Pandemic docu-series. 

As some people try to avoid anything that reminds them of COVID-19, others simply can’t get enough pandemic content. If you’re obsessed with the news cycle right now, and related matters, here are some reasons you might be diving straight into the action. 

If you can’t stop reading the news, you may be looking for a sense of control.

According to Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the Personology podcast, people have different coping and defense mechanisms for dealing with anxiety and stress.

“Those will probably say a lot about how much looking or not looking [at pandemic-related content] someone is doing,” Saltz said.

People diving into the news cycle ― analyzing every detail of new developments ― are likely looking to regain some control and “own the narrative,” according to Judy Ho, a clinical and forensic neuropsychologist in Southern California and host of SuperCharged Life podcast.

“Reading up on all of the news gives people the belief that somehow they’ll be able to solve the problem better if they are armed with all of the knowledge,” Ho said. “Which is true to an extent, but not true in that there is very little we can control about how much longer this disease spreads and when we might actually get back to the new normal as a society because those are not our decisions to make.”

The urge to control and mold a situation is innate, speaking directly to our evolutionary roots of survival at all costs, she added. “If we can control our environment, then we can survive and not perish. So it’s a survivalist technique at the most basic level,” Ho said.

Getting educated through following the news is not a bad thing to do. “Intellectualizing is both a reasonably sophisticated and, for some people, helpful defense mechanism ― understanding it to the best of their abilities,” Saltz said. In a world of unknown, if the disease strikes close to home, it might give you some comfort to feel like you understand the pandemic as well as you can.  

That said, Saltz said what is “healthy in moderation” can be taken to an extreme quickly. Initially, finding out new information will calm your nerves. “But it also provides positive feedback in your brain to say, ‘This works,’” Saltz said. “If you find yourself going down the rabbit hole all the time, the compulsion to look and find the material, and make yourself feel better, will grow an obsession. You’ll go from intellectualizing it to an obsessive-compulsive solution to anxiety... You could develop a problem that feels like a solution.”

If you are constantly seeking out new COVID-19 information that may not even be there, Saltz suggested limiting yourself to such activities to 20 minutes a day. Engage in other hobbies ― like meditation, going for walks, talking to friends, cooking ― to calm your anxiety.

(Photo: hsyncoban via Getty Images)

If you’re hooked on the dramatized versions of pandemics, you might be looking for potential solutions or processing trauma.

When you have no idea what to expect, and a situation is wholly unprecedented, what can you do? Movies like “Contagion” offer a glimpse into a fictionalized pandemic that feels real. You might have even seen some of that drama play out in the earliest days of COVID-19, like panic-buying at the grocery store. 

“I think many people feel like they are in the middle of a dystopian novel or movie right now, and I think people are looking for clues [in these movies and shows] on how to survive, how to relate to one another, how to prioritize day-to-day activities by looking at these fictionalized pandemic stories,” Ho said. “How did they ultimately solve the problem, if there was a good resolution in the book or film? How did they ration food, stock supplies, treat one another?”

In some ways, people may be flocking to artistic portraits of these pandemics to try and pick up “lessons they can use in real life, especially as right now real life and fiction really seem a bit blurry,” Ho said.

There may also be another reason, according to Saltz. Commonly, when someone feels traumatized by an experience, they immerse themselves in it as a way of working through it.

“We see this all the time in psychotherapy,” she said. “People don’t realize the way they are replaying the events in thought or behavior, but they are reworking in their mind. Watching the movie is doing that, yet one step removed, which is not as scary as actually doing it.” 

Saltz said children even do this. If they’ve been traumatized by something, “it comes out in the pictures they draw, the stories they write, the way they play” with dolls or toys.

All of this “may allow you to do several things — it can help you re-review and process the material in a slightly different way,” she said. “Or, it may help you to desensitize yourself to it.”

This may or may not be a good strategy for coping with the times, depending on how you feel at the end of each movie or show. Saltz said it matters just how conscious you are of exposing yourself to said content ― i.e., are you doing it for a reason?

“If you are more conscious of it, it may be more useful to you,” she said. “Sitting to watch ‘Contagion’ because you can’t believe this is happening, and you can’t get enough of working it through from all angles, it might be good for you. If you’re watching it and at the end, you feel worse and more anxious, then it’s not.”

(Photo: monkeybusinessimages via Getty Images)

If you can’t view pandemic content right now, you are engaging in a basic anxiety coping mechanism.

For some, pandemic content might be just too real, so they are avoiding the podcasts, skipping the movies and tuning out of the news.

“I do think some people are just made more anxious by viewing this content,” Saltz said. “Risk-taking is not enjoyable to them. Being flooded with those neurotransmitters of anxiety makes them feel overall disassembled.”

The people most likely to feel triggered by this content are the compartmentalizers versus the control-seekers; they would rather pretend it’s not there than “delve into trauma and examine it,” she said.

Ho said this coping mechanism is helpful when used sparingly; for instance, if a movie or Twitter news is just too much or it’s making you upset, there’s no need to dive in deeper.

“Avoidance and suppression are among the most primitive coping strategies.” according to Sigmund Freud, she said. “It’s when you believe your psyche can’t handle the negative thoughts or feelings, and so you block it out at all costs and try to pretend life is a-ok and everything is normal,” she said.

That said, there’s a difference between avoiding some pandemic triggers and pretending it’s not happening at all. And sometimes, this “escapist behavior” can prompt mental health problems like substance abuse.

“Those addictions are often utilized as a way to block out painful feelings, memories, and thoughts,” Ho said. “But of course, when one comes back to reality, their problems are still there and may have even grown.” 

Instead, find healthy outlets, like talking to friends about how you’re experiencing the pandemic. Look for a delicate balance of “mindfulness and preparedness” to feel better right now. If you find yourself catastrophizing ― thinking of future worst-case scenarios ― “gently bring your thoughts and awareness back to the present moment by really focusing on what you are doing,” Ho said. Make your coffee. Take your walk. Read a book. Call your family.

And then, prepare without overdoing it. “You can try making a list of things you can control versus things you can’t,” Ho said. “For the things you can control, create an action step to deal with each of them. For the things you can’t, read it, acknowledge that they are scary, but then you have to let it go.” 

Some things just aren’t up to you, or any of us. As much as you can, try not to let future uncertainty rob you of right now, pandemic or not.

This story is part of HuffPost Life’s series on coping with uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic. Check out our other stories below.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.