Life as an immune-compromised person under quarantine in New York City has been stressful, to say the least. Families in crowded apartment buildings stacked on top of each other, all the stores have narrow aisles, and there are people everywhere — even though we’ve been asked to stay home to stop the spread. Many are willing to adapt to our new normal, but there are just as many refusing to stay home, wear masks or respect the 6-foot distance rule.
According to the Mayo Clinic, stress can bring on anxiety, sadness, a feeling of being overwhelmed, irritability and anger. These feelings can ooze out of us in different ways, says Sanam Hafeez, a clinical psychologist based in New York City. “The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world in a magnitude that we have not seen until now. While we do see courage and kindness, we also see people who act out in an aggressive, offensive or inappropriate manner, both in-person and online,” she says.
Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist in Bethesda, Maryland, host of "Baggage Check," a live chat and column with "The Washington Post," says living under the “chronic, constant threat” of COVID-19 does a number on our peripheral nervous systems, causing some to act out. “It can make us more irritable, or more self-serving — ‘I'm not going to wear a mask. They're uncomfortable, and if I get sick, I get sick.’ This hijacks our decision-making process and makes us less thoughtful in our actions, which easily causes conflict with others,” she explains.
It’s no wonder corona-jerky behavior abounds. We asked Bonior and Hafeez to help define those behaviors and give their tips for how to avoid them.
At the grocery store
As nerve-wracking as grocery shopping is right now, both experts stress the importance of treating your fellow shoppers the way you’d like to be treated. “It's a crucial time for the classic question: ‘If everyone behaved like I am right now, would it be a good thing or a bad thing?’” says Bonior. “If someone isn't showing you space, give them kindness in terms of tone, but be firm in your own boundary.”
“Respect for personal space is being self-aware,” says Hafeez. “People are scared right now. If they are in a grocery store it’s out of necessity, so giving people space, wearing a mask and practicing general prevention etiquette can go a long way.” When it’s time to check out, remember the cashiers are putting themselves at risk so you can eat, so treat them with kindness. “Practice patience and never berate or humiliate anyone,” Hafeez says. And remember — a simple ‘thank you’ can go a long way.
With so many working from home and craving water-cooler conversation, social media channels are rampant with COVID-fueled aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior. “It’s one thing to debate, but be kind and leave out personal attacks,” Bonior advises. “It's really a matter of tone. If you feel the need to correct someone, do it in an empathetic way with as much respect and as little condescension as you can muster. Sometimes, that means doing it privately.”
While jogging or taking a walk outside
Though exercise can alleviate stress, do it in a way that considers the health of others. “Social distance is of paramount importance — even outside in the fresh air,” says Hafeez. “If you’re jogging towards a walker, keep a healthy distance as you jog past. When we jog we breathe faster, sometimes through our mouths, and we could be sweating and huffing and puffing.”
“We simply don't have the right to put other people at significant risk for our own convenience,” says Bonior. “Give others the right of way. There's likely nowhere that you are actually rushing to when you are outside at this point. If you can't do it for others, think about your own exposure instead.”
In an apartment building
COVID-compliant etiquette is vital in shared spaces, like apartment buildings. “The responsible thing to do is to stay home and avoid having people visit,” says Hafeez. “Take precautions for your neighbors and yourself, like disposing of gloves correctly — not leaving them on the floor in an elevator — and make sure you wear a protective layer over your nose and mouth.”
“Having people visit” includes anyone who works for you in your home. “If your own income isn’t in jeopardy, I strongly believe it's the right thing to do to keep paying domestic workers who rely on that income — even if they can’t work,” says Bonior. “Making them work puts them at risk.”
Whether you’re working from home or are an essential worker on the front lines, patience and consideration are key. “If you have to share a lunchroom, make cleanliness, organization and safety the center of your every decision,” says Hafeez. “Don't leave used utensils on a counter, wash your hands when using communal equipment and if you feel sick or have come into contact with someone who is sick, stay home.”
Bonior says those on continuous conference calls at home should be understanding of those with children, or who have dogs that bark. “It's easy to be accidentally disruptive," she says. "If your coworker does something embarrassing, don't be the person who makes it go viral.” On the other hand, if it's your own child or dog that disrupts the call, Bonior suggest you "take responsibility, make a simple but heartfelt apology, then try your best to move on.”
When cooped-up in close quarters with others, tensions can build easily. Hafeez says you can avoid being a jerk by displaying some consideration. “Take care of a task without being asked, help prepare food and maintain precautions, such as coughing into your elbows, covering your mouth and washing your hands religiously and correctly,” she says.
Bonior adds that, as close as your family may be under normal circumstances, everyone needs emotional space once in a while. “Let them have their privacy — don't bring them into work calls or post constantly about them on social media if they aren't truly OK with it,” she says.
In your community
Calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” set off a rash of abominable behavior, including horrible acts of bigotry and racism against the Asian community. “Racism and bigotry are unacceptable,” says Hafeez. “Mocking or attacking a person of Asian descent will not cure this pandemic, and it won't make us feel any better.”
There are some options for responding to a racist incident. For example, if you feel it's safe to intervene, you can take a stand and offer your support to the victim. You can also report the incident to the police. “Fear can bring out the worst in some people. But it can motivate us to look out for each other and realize that we’re all in this world together. That can be a bright spot in all of this pain,” Bonior says.
Ultimately, to avoid being jerk, err on the side of empathy. “Understand that, just as scared as you are, there are millions of people out there who are struggling as well. We can all be mindful and respectful of others' views and space, and make a commitment to act more calmly and with empathy, [rather] than minimize the stress and struggles of others,” says Hafeez.
Finally, if you know someone suffering from COVID-19 — directly or indirectly — reach out. “Almost all of us are feeling more alone than normal, but those who have been touched by grief and loss, or the threat of a sick family member, are feeling alone-ness more acutely and need support more than ever,” Bonior says.