From tears, to fine: Why do our reactions to COVID-19 news differ so?

A few weeks back, when news of lockdown number six in Melbourne broke, I called my parents in tears. We all knew by then that the “snap” lockdown could mean months, and the weight of uncertainty, exhaustion and sadness felt like bricks on my shoulders and heart.

Shortly after, a friend was telling me it wasn’t that bad and that everyone feeling so down just needed some perspective: this was just some extra time indoors.

When interacting, the number one thing to remember is to choose compassion over judgement.Credit:iStock

I was initially baffled – especially as everyone was posting versions of “it’s OK to not be OK right now” and heartbroken emojis online. Yet the more I check in with those in my social circles, the more I realise how emotionally varied everyone’s reaction to the news currently is.

While some are in despair over case numbers and protracted lockdowns, others are more ho-hum, maintaining an “it is what it is” mentality while working from home in the day and diving into Netflix or novels at night. Then there are those who are numb; just trying to get through the day.

Gemma Cribb, clinical psychologist at Equilibrium Psychology, says it’s very normal to have different reactions to the same news as we all have different histories, beliefs, attitudes and triggers.

“Although we often choose our friends based on similarities, because we are different people our emotional reactions will vary on many things,” she says. “You don’t expect your friends to have the same feelings about the same music, movies, cuisine as you do so it is normal to expect variation in feelings about world events.”

Even on an individual level, the way we react to the news and feel about lockdown seems to chop and change on any given day. As Cribb notes, “sometimes you feel you are OK, and others not so much”.

This, she says, is determined by several intersecting factors, such as the amount and quality of sleep, exercise, downtime, the number of current stressors you’re facing and how well you can compartmentalise what is happening.

Michael Inglis, psychologist from The Mind Room, affirms it’s normal for people to have different emotional reactions. So, while some are feeling stress and anxiety as cumulative effects of the past lockdowns, others may be feeling angry or sad, or relief at plans escaped.

“I think first and foremost, no matter what the situation is, as a human, we all have a right to feel what we’re feeling,” says Inglis. “And what I mean by that is always it’s actually OK to be experiencing whatever emotion you’re experiencing – so, it’s actually really important to recognise and own that.”

“We have good and bad days in this – some days, we feel like we can cope and are quite robust about it but at times where we really struggle.”

When it comes to interacting with those in your social circles and with others around you, Inglis says the number one thing should be compassion over judgment.

“Really listening and engaging in their world and how they’ve been affected by [COVID-19 and the news cycle], that makes you a really good support,” he notes.

However, if tension or frustration do arise due to emotional differences, there are a few things you can do to help the situation, your relationship and your own mental wellbeing.

“If one of your friends is very triggering for you, set boundaries around how much time you will spend with them or the topics you are willing to talk with them about,” says Cribb.

“Remember you don’t have to agree with them to be respectful and kind towards them.

“Ask whatever questions you need in order to try to see things from their point of view. Reflect back to them what you have heard ­– active listening – to validate their experience.”

It can also be an opportunity to enrich your relationships, Cribb says, by understanding their perspectives.

Lastly, Inglis says it’s crucial to acknowledge that all of our emotional states can change day-to-day, hour-by-hour, and they won’t always match others around us.

“We have good and bad days in this – some days, we feel like we can cope and are quite robust about it but at times where we really struggle.”

For me, I’ve learnt to treat both my own emotional fluctuations and those of the people around me with kindness first. On days where I’m down, I’ll remove myself from the world, bundle on the couch and watch Ted Lasso. On days when I’m doing OK, I’ll check in with others.

We’re all different emotional yo-yos but that’s ok – it’s where that compassion and empathy come into the mix to help.

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