How being a Covid snitch can damage your mental health

Coronavirus has turned us into a nation of narks.

We see our neighbours bringing home friends and ponder calling the police. We tut at those wearing their face masks loosely slung below their noses. We peep out of the window to see if that duo is actually exercising, or just wearing trainers to have a coffee and a chat.

As messaging around the pandemic continues to hype up the importance of vigilance, the temptation to snitch makes total sense,

After all, if we don’t follow these strict rules to defeat an unseen enemy, the slightest infraction could result in death, we’re told.

We’ve even been directly encouraged to grass people up. Government Minister Kit Malthouse advised us to report on anyone we suspected of breaking the ‘rule of six’ in September and in December Priti Patel urged the public to contact the police if they suspected their neighbours of having Christmas parties.

Snitching has been framed as our ‘civic duty’, a way to ‘save lives’.

But why have so many of us been so quick to take up the task of checking everyone else is sticking to the plan?

What does it say about us that we’re so eager to judge or squeal on those breaking the rules – and, most importantly, is such constant vigilance good for our mental wellbeing?

‘As a counsellor working on various help lines during the pandemic I noticed that the clients who were obsessing about the behaviour of others were particularly distressed,’ explains Counselling Directory member Claire Deane.

‘They were exacerbating their anxiety to the point of being plagued by frantic thoughts and a deepening mistrust of others. These people were obsessively scanning for danger, or at worst developing hypervigilance.’

Hypervigilance is something that occurs when we constantly feel on high alert for danger.

‘It’s a state of near-continual arousal, anxiety, and rumination,’ explains Matt Hawkins, the director of Compassion in Politics.

‘The experience of living through a global pandemic (and the new rules, behaviours, and fears that that induces) could put many more people at risk from suffering from it, especially if government communications use shaming or divisive language.

‘The type of symptoms associated with extended periods of hypervigilance include impaired cognition (attention, concentration, and memory), sleep disorders, hypertension (high blood pressure), and paranoia.’

While the idea that our snitching tendencies become so intense they can raise blood pressure and wreck our sleep may sound extreme, the reality is lockdown has brought an abundance of opportunities for us to monitor others – as well as ever-changing new rules by which to judge them.

Not only are we faced with checking everyone we pass on the way to the supermarket, we’re also bombarded with evidence of people not taking restrictions seriously online.

‘I really try not to judge,’ says Cara, 29. ‘But in each lockdown I’ve become so angry.

‘Every time I go for a run in the park I see groups of people smoking weed together or just sitting on the floor. Then on Instagram there’s celebs in Dubai, people I know with a group of friends, or someone’s posting a story where they’re having loads of takeaways delivered.

‘It’s enraging because I’ve been sticking to the rules for a year, and people still don’t seem to care. We’re in a pandemic and no one’s taking it seriously.’

That frustration of seeing others appearing to ignore rules that you’re stringently following can also add to levels of stress that are already simmering on high, explains Claire.

‘For lots of people, the adherence to rules provides a secure guideline or the concept of “doing the right thing”, so seeing others break them can trigger fear and uncertainty,’ she says.

But even if everyone were behaving perfectly, the very act of checking that they are could be damaging to our mental wellbeing, as it raises our perception of looming threat.

‘An overstimulation of the threat system can lead to depression, anxiety disorders, shame, avoidance, paranoia and many other mental health issues,’ says Matt. ‘If the public are primed by the government to look out for individuals who are breaking the rules and to feel a sense of anger and fear when they observe such behaviour, there is a risk that more people will be pushed towards experiencing the kind of disorders listed above.

‘They may also feel anxiety, shame or guilt – torn between their own personal desire to avoid conflict with neighbours and the moralistic tone of the government’s messaging.’

Claire says that while our brain work hard to keep us out of jeopardy, ‘when it gets out of balance, it can really cause great distress’.

She adds: ‘The brain is designed to spot danger so that it can keep you safe, meaning that it is likely to look only at the negatives and to make interpretations based on these. However, constantly monitoring other people may result in amplified panic.’

If you’re someone who usually identifies as anti-authority and laissez-faire, this sudden change to your sense of self can be distressing, too.

‘You have never met the version of you that is faced with these conditions and we may be surprised at how we are behaving under these circumstances,’ Claire continues.

‘This could be very taxing for someone’s mental wellbeing,’ adds Matt. ‘Our minds constantly search for order – we need to feel that our values, thoughts, and behaviours are consistent and if they are not we experience cognitive dissonance, which is a very unpleasant feeling.’

So, an increased sense of threat, stress, cognitive dissonance, and fear. Anything else?

All that vigilance – and the messaging that encourages us to monitor our peers – could also be adding to a sense of division across the nation, which in turn could create long-term implications lasting beyond the pandemic.

‘The emphasis on creating a climate of fear could encourage people to view friends, family, and neighbours as a threat to their own wellbeing,’ says Matt. ‘It could make returning to “normality” extremely difficult.

‘A heavily moralistic tone of messaging also risks setting up tribes – “covidiots” versus the good citizen and so on.’

The good news is that now we know all this checking, surveilling, and snitching isn’t great for our mental health, we can take steps to tackle it.

Claire recommends opening your mind to the idea that ‘rule-breakers’ may not be blithely ignoring the restrictions, and to avoid hastily sticking labels on people.

‘In my conversation with an anonymous client over the summer he revealed that he was angry with groups of people gathering in the hot sun,’ she tells us. ‘I asked him about his living situation. He was a financially secure man who could socialise with his family on a daily basis in his large garden.

‘The truth is, not everyone has that luxury. If we become too blinkered we might find that we make assumptions about others, labelling them selfish, inconsiderate. This in can evoke feelings of anger in us.’

Rather than looking at what everyone else is doing, the best way forward is to focus on yourself. Put on those mental blinkers and remind yourself that what others are doing has no bearing on what you choose to do – are you staying safe and looking after yourself?

‘Consider safety behaviours for you and yours,’ says Claire. ‘Accept that not everyone’s needs and attitudes match your own.

‘If you are feeling drained and burned out, take your focus off others, and on to yourself. Soothe and reassure yourself, What do you need to feel comforted? Focus inwards not outwards.

‘We have seen time and time again in life how a “them and us” attitude negatively affects human life. Ask yourself to find perspective and to consider the bigger picture. This year has been difficult enough.’

It’s vital that in our efforts to tackle the virus, we don’t make other people just trying their best our enemy.

‘Encouraging the idea that people around you are checking up on us will not create the atmosphere that we need right now,’ says Professor Paul Gilbert. ‘More than anything else we need to create caring communities of support.

‘The reality is that most people are compliant and we need to focus on that and how we can continue to care for and help one another. Otherwise we could damage our psychology just because of the actions of a minority.’

Ultimately, it comes down to acceptance. Yes, you might think rule-breakers are committing a terrible act, but constantly looking out for infractions won’t cure the pandemic or make you feel any better.

‘Try to remember these central points,’ says Matt. ‘Firstly, you cannot control what other people think, feel, or do. Only they can and only they are responsible for their actions.

‘Secondly, focus on what you can control – your own reactions, beliefs, and behaviours and your wellbeing.

‘Finally, remember that you have a right to feel safe and peaceful and you should allow yourself to find that mental state.’

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