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Why it's hard for us to fathom the COVID-19 death toll

Mental health experts weigh in on why we’re becoming desensitized to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and how to cope with difficult feelings.
Why it's hard for us to fathom the COVID-19 death toll
“We are not able to mount the same intense stress and emotional response as we did in the beginning of the pandemic,” said Alicia Walf.TODAY illustration / Getty Images

At the start of the pandemic, Michael Mazius, Ph.D., a behavioral psychologist based in Wisconsin, checked the coronavirus death toll daily.

“Checking became a kind of ritual at the end of the day,” Mazius said. “But I don't check everyday anymore. It’s more like every 10 days or even every 14 days.”

Mazius is a firm believer in the mental health benefits of ending the day with a positive ritual — not a bleak one — which partly explains why he stopped checking the death toll in the evening; but it doesn’t explain why he’s been checking it less and less. “What is going on with that?” he asked himself. The answer likely hinges on the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for nearly half a year now. We’ve become used to mass death to the point of habituation and even desensitization.

We’ve adjusted to the fact of mass death to survive

“The human brain naturally adjusts to novel circumstances as they become chronic,” Mazius explained. “We've had a fair amount of time to adjust to the pandemic — even to the scary stuff. So as a function of moving forward, we’re probably becoming desensitized to the rising death toll.”

The phenomenon of becoming desensitized to ongoing traumas such as death tolls is well-documented in disaster psychology, noted Diana Concannon, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist and the dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University in San Diego.

“Whether the threat is an enemy combatant during wartime, climate change and its many repercussions or a relentless virus, we become accustomed to its effects,” Concannon said. “This is a survival mechanism, the way our brains adapt to an onslaught — no matter how horrific — that is constant and persistent. It allows us to continue to function amidst adversity.”

Alicia Walf, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and senior lecturer in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, emphasized that desensitization amid ongoing trauma is “natural and adaptive,” and suggested that it helps us to emotionally regulate ourselves in chronically traumatic situations. “We are not able to mount the same intense stress and emotional response as we did in the beginning of the pandemic,” Walf said.

Additionally, the human brain simply doesn’t compute mass tragedy as well as it does tragedy on a smaller scale.

“We have an easier time feeling empathy for one person than for large groups of people,” said Concannon. “Research has repeatedly shown that we become desensitized as the number of individuals affected by particular events increase (and) don’t process large numbers as well as we do smaller numbers.”

Desensitization is healthy but can lead to difficult feelings

Ultimately, desensitization after months of repeated trauma is healthy, and indicates “that your brain is working normally,” Mazius said. “It’s a good thing.”

But desensitization in the face of a soaring U.S. death toll from coronavirus doesn’t necessarily seem like a good thing — and some people are worried there’s something wrong with them for not feeling the same level of upset they did when the pandemic first struck.

“This is such an important issue that I have not seen discussed, but am seeing in my practice,” said Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a Philadelphia-based psychologist and the author of “Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want.” “The issue as I’m hearing it, is not just desensitizing to death; it’s feeling guilty about not reacting more to the number of deaths, and then that guilt triggering a spiral of self-doubt and self-deprecation.”

The truth of the matter, as Mazius emphasized, is that if you’re concerned that becoming numb to the death toll makes you a callous person, that concern alone should be taken as some proof that you are not. Much in the way a narcissist seldom seeks help because they almost never cultivate the self-awareness to ponder if they might be a narcissist, a person totally bereft of compassion usually isn’t worrying about whether they’re compassionate.

Still, Concannon pointed out that it’s important to maintain empathy for others as well as for ourselves — and to deal with any negative feelings popping up right now. And while some level of desensitization from the stress-inducing realities of the pandemic is a normal and healthy survival response, it’s still crucial to follow COVID-19 safety protocols like wearing masks and social distancing to avoid contracting the virus.

Here’s what therapists recommend doing to get in touch with your feelings.

1. Accept that ‘numbness’ is normal

“As feeling beings, it is disconcerting and frightening to feel shut down,” said Chansky. “Recognize that this is adaptive — even babies close their eyes and go to sleep when they are on emotional overload. Use your self-talk to not be upset about the numbness.” You should literally tell yourself, ‘It’s OK to not feel right now’ and “This is normal in overwhelming circumstances,’” said Chansky.

2. Regularly connect to feeling within your body

Chansky suggests keeping a list of go-to’s for feeling something on a physical level. This could be upbeat music, watching a favorite comedian or even doing jumping jacks. “Kind of like when you have no appetite, you need to take a few bites of food regularly to remind yourself of the natural instinct to eat,” Chansky said.

3. Partake in grieving rituals

“Approaching grief with respect helps us to honor both ourselves and those who we have lost, regardless of our relationship to them,” said Concannon. Moments of silence and lighting candles are examples of rituals you might engage in to honor those who’ve passed. These rituals are important because they give us “space to reflect upon those who’ve died” as well as to “to take a moment out of what for many are disrupted and chaotic ‘new normal,’” said Concannon.

4. Donate time or money

“Donating our time or resources to a cause that positively contributes to the world in the name of others likewise helps us to honor those who’ve passed,” said Concannon. “Simply engaging in a kind act and dedicating it to those who are no longer with us connects us to the best of who we are and reminds us of the importance of our connection to each other.”

CORRECTION (Sept. 14, 2020, 8:25 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the university where Alicia Walf, Ph.D is a lecturer. It is Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, not Rensselaer Polytechnic University.