My friends and family have heard me complain incessantly about a few runners at Memorial Park (a popular park for runners in Houston) who refuse to engage in social distancing. Over the past few weeks, I have jumped into shrubs to avoid contact, been splashed with someone else’s sweat, and witnessed other runners and walkers blatantly disobeying the many “6 Feet Distancing” signs spread throughout the park.

Those of you who know me understand what running means to me and how it keeps me grounded. To go to my sanctuary and feel unsafe and angry belies the good vibes I get from one of my favorite activities.

As a psychology major and life coach, I am fascinated by human behavior. The disparate behavior of ordinary people during this quarantine has both intrigued and seriously confounded my sense of comprehension.

Over the past month, some people have felt compelled to fill empty rooms in their homes to the ceiling with paper supplies, non-perishable foods, hand sanitizer, soap, and countless other items that may not be used for many years. On the other end of the spectrum, some individuals entirely refuse to follow social distancing and other safe practices mandated by health officials. The majority of citizens fall somewhere in between these two groups.

Gordon Asmundson, a professor at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, is studying psychological responses to the quarantine. He has categorized our responses into three categories: over-responders, under-responders, and those who fall in between. So, think of Goldilocks and the three bears. “Too hot” refers to the over-responders; “too cold,” the under-responders; and “just right,” those who manage to strike a healthy balance. 

Let’s take a more detailed look at each of these groups.

First, the over- responders: These are the panic buyers, the people who have rooms filled to the brim with toilet tissue and hand sanitizer. They’re fearful and anxious about the unknown and panic buy in an effort to ease their fears and reassure themselves. They feel uneasy and out of control, and loading up a shopping cart empowers and reassures them. At the same time, there is a bit of an “every man for himself” mentality as they swipe the shelves clean of supplies, leaving none for the shoppers behind them.

Then we have the under-responders. These are the people at Memorial Park who continue to run or walk in groups and crowd other runners. You also see them on the news and social media in protest groups, on beaches, and in other assorted large gatherings. They openly flout their independence and opposition to safety standards.

What’s behind this behavior? Several things, actually. One is that many people simply don’t believe that COVID-19 is a threat. The number of cases may be low in their geographical area, they may feel that everyone else is overreacting, or they may believe the entire situation is fiction or a hoax. On the other hand, many people feel that they are immune to the virus or that the rules don’t apply to them because they are young, healthy, or don’t meet the “vulnerable” criteria. Like the over-responders, this behavior is also a way to feel empowered, as they are acting in defiance of societal expectations.

People don’t like to feel out of control.

Feeling out of control is uncomfortable and can bring deeply-rooted anxieties and insecurities to the surface. In order to maintain an illusion of control, people fight against the rules, become defiant, and feel empowered by their perceived “victories” against the “system.” In America, freedom and individual liberties are highly valued. Many people feel that quarantining, social distancing, and wearing protective items threaten their rights as human beings. Therefore, one’s desire to control his or her environment can begin to eclipse any concern for public safety or respect for others.

Lastly, we have those who are “just right,” or the “in-betweeners.” This group may not be crazy about the inconveniences they’re facing, but nonetheless make a conscious choice to adhere to social distancing and safety rules for the good of the community. That doesn’t mean that they don’t feel fearful, angry, or frustrated. They almost certainly do. However, their behavior indicates that they are willing to make sacrifices and steady their emotions in order to halt the virus’ spread.

It may surprise you that in planetary astronomy there is a term for the “just right” distance between the sun and the moon for a planet to orbit in order for water to exist on its surface.  This distance is referred to as the “Goldilocks Zone.” 

We all have our own Goldilocks Zone, also known as our social space, where we feel comfortable. During this pandemic, this personal space has more than likely increased to six feet or more. What’s important as we struggle to adjust to our new reality is to honor both our own individual values and the safety of our fellow human beings. This is a time where we can adopt a perspective of looking at the greater good and the possibilities of a new and unusual reality. We have a choice to make adjustments and adaptations-or not.

For some of us, this “new normal” presents a profound daily struggle. For others, it’s hardly a dilemma at all. Most of us fall between these two extremes. How will you adjust your outlook? What will be your choices? How can we get through this together?

Talking to someone about these internal struggles is helpful, and certified coaches specialize in helping their clients explore these challenges. Curious? Email me and we can arrange a time to talk.

Stay safe!

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