Quarantine Fifteen

I wrote the below note in mid 2020 and it got lost in the files. Even though it was written in the context of Covid, consider any uncertain environment as a replacement for Covid. For example, operating in an economic environment either personally or in business where interest rates have increased to the highest levels in a generation in less than two years. Or, regional wars that offer the potential for wider escalation. Any circumstance that contributes to uncertainty is uncomfortable and creates some predictable coping problems.

Maybe you’ve heard reference to the quarantine fifteen as the explanation of why you’re struggling to get into your jeans? It’s another arrow to add to our new virus vocabulary that reflects the Wuhan weight many of us may be accumulating over the last couple of months. It’s not just the result of less competition in our backyard Easter Egg hunts. The stress and uncertainty that has been thrust upon us is being experienced in some universal ways. We’re seeking comfort in food or distraction in wine and other alcohol. We may be moving less. Additionally, much of what we’re experiencing results in increased psychological stress. This results in hormonal responses which both drive weight gaining behaviors as well as chemical changes which conspire to pack on some pounds.

In his recently released book, Scarcity Brain, Michael Easter quotes the trade group of candy confectioners, “When times are tough, people turn to sweets to make themselves feel better.” I’m guessing most of us didn’t need this group to tell us what we already knew. Easter notes what researchers at the University of Miami discovered. “When we receive cues of scarcity—say, a news story that mentions that all is not right with the world, such as economic decline, a pandemic, or really anything about American politics—we choose high calorie candy and eat double the amount we would if we didn’t receive a scarcity cue.”

Perhaps, you recall seeing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in an introduction to psychology class or a continuing education seminar? It reflects the idea that we each are seeking to pursue satisfaction of similar needs. First, we need shelter, then other survival needs like thirst and hunger. Then we need to feel security needs like belonging. Only once these base level needs are met are we able to move up the pyramid in pursuit of other higher level needs. Psychologist, Abraham Maslow, referred to the base needs as “d-level” or “deficiency needs”. These needs drive motivation when they aren’t satisfied. If we are lacking, then our entire perception of reality shifts to see only this lack and we’re fully motivated and on alert to figure out how to fill this void. If we’re hungry, all we can think about is food. Our reality revolves around satisfying this need. Maslow offered that the first experience for newborns is need. Need for hunger. Need for security. These are the earliest things for which we clamor. We seek, struggle, and stumble to have these satisfied from our earliest moments.

Where are d-needs aren’t met, there are material consequences to us. This is the case for all animals. Certain, predictable negative behaviors result when we are exposed to a lack of a d-need. Our anxiety increases, as does our susceptibility to become irritable and aggressive. We become more prone to acting impulsively. The slang word, “hangry” resonates with us because we’ve both experienced it personally and witnessed it in others. It captures exactly what our universal response is to a deficit in any of our base needs. We also know that when our d-needs aren’t being met, our ability to focus on other things becomes less. This is one reason for the efforts many school systems put towards breakfast and lunch programs. They know all too well that students that aren’t eating well, aren’t able to focus or concentrate. Efforts at education are wasted when base, survival needs aren’t being met. Again, it’s not just hunger and thirst to which this applies. If we are worried about our bills and lay awake at night worrying about which obligation we can try to pay and which we will have to put off, our ability to function and be either productive or creative the next day is compromised. Our brain bandwidth is distracted by the unmet d-needs and simply can’t consider other things. If we’re worried about the result of a medical test that we or a loved one has recently had, our ability to be creative or focus on our job is less. In short, where we’re exposed to difficult conditions, we become preoccupied with survival: safety and security while foregoing opportunities for growth.

The non-stop negative news cycle can’t help but create concern. We worry. We may all be experiencing the extent of disruption differently, but we all sense that these are difficult times. Our security is threatened. Our spider senses are tingling. This is true for each of us and our customers. Our ability to focus on constructive actions is much harder. Even with more time on our hands, we may be struggling to prioritize and figure out where to invest our energies. There’s nothing wrong with us. This is perfectly natural. Maslow’s theory suggests our stress response to the overwhelming uncertainty with which we’re surrounded is to be expected.

Maslow observed, “the average child and, less obviously, the average adult in our society generally prefers a safe, orderly, predictable, lawful, organized world, which he can count on and in which unexpected, unmanageable, chaotic, or other dangerous things to not happen.” We’re constantly scanning our environments for threats, processing information, and making assessments to determine if what we see matches our expectations or not. Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory reminds us often that we are creatures of habit trying to embrace homeostasis. We don’t like change. At any number of levels, our bodies are attempting to reduce surprise. Maslow notes, “The need for safety, and its accompanying needs for stability, certainty, predictability, coherence, continuity, and trust in the environment, is the base upon which all the others are fulfilled.”

We know how important routine is. We want to know what to expect. We enjoy the creature comforts of home. We like sleeping in our own bed more than hopping from hotel to hotel. When driving to work, we typically take the same route daily. If construction or an accident disrupts our path, does it provide us with comfort or frustration? Why do we have a favorite restaurant? Could it be that no surprises, no disappointments is a mindset that gives us comfort in many circumstances? Boring is beautiful. We do better when we get up at the same time, do our first efforts the same way, and move through the day largely through routine. One universal impact of the changes we are experiencing is that, at minimum, our routines have been deeply disrupted. Even if we are able to travel to our offices or jobs, our commutes are eerily quieter. Our interactions with others have forced distance imposed. We look at others with greater distrust or wariness. No matter who we are, where we work, how we are managing our day to day activities has changed significantly. Wherever we were on our journeys, the arrival of the Kung Flu has changed what we do.

We are asking ourselves questions like “does my immediate environment make sense?” and “is there any predictability in my day?” If we aren’t able to answer these questions positively, we experience psychological entropy. It is a feeling of internal chaos and disorder. We feel this as discomfort, anxiety, and stress. Psychological entropy puts a strain on our resources and ability to function. We waste metabolic resources thinking about our problems. It has consequences to both the future we can envision as well as our immediate actions. Maslow writes, “any person at any point in time could become dominated by safety needs and would likely act in a predictable fashion in accordance with fundamental principles of human nature.”

A common element of concern for safety needs is fear. When our sense of safety is stymied, we are likely to trust less. We regard others with suspicion. Our character becomes like that of an entirely different person. When we feel safe, we can be kind, good, thoughtful. When we don’t feel safe, we’re on full alert. We are focused on ourselves. Others represent a threat and not help. Our sense of possibility can dwindle. Our strategies can become dangerous to others as well as to ourselves. We may become all too worried about stockpiling supplies to protect ourselves. Toilet paper, sanitary wipes, any disinfectant, and canned goods become our gold. We’re not buying for this week, we’re now purchasing for a longer timeframe. Unfortunately, if any of our d-needs remain unfulfilled for any length of time, the negative consequences continue. Other systems begin deteriorating and, eventually, a sense of helplessness sets in.

Even if we don’t deteriorate fully, our cognition can be compromised. Just as we get more volatile and impatient when we’re hungry, we can struggle with processing information when we’re distracted with the stress of uncertainty. Our minds are elsewhere, focused on our problems, on satisfying our d-needs. With our reduced bandwidth, our ability to think well has left us. These limitations can accumulate resulting in us being dumber, more hostile, and hyper-sensitive to threats. When under duress, our decisions are likely to create a mess. This isn’t a good combination.

At the heart of much of our commercial relationships lies trust. We are each very complex individuals. In order to be able to function in large groups we need to have some confidence how others will behave. The basis of this is trust. We trust that other drivers will stay on their side of the road and be similarly motivated as us to avoid each other. We trust that business owners want to stay open and will provide decent products and services in order to keep us coming back. We trust that we can safely walk by each other as we walk up and down sidewalks. We trust that drivers and pedestrians will obey traffic signs and signals. We trust that shoppers will be honest. We trust. We trust. And we trust. Much of our trust is based on predictions. We predict how people are likely to behave based on similar past experiences. We rely on the past to be a good predictor of the future. If our trust is betrayed, we are rarely better for it. We become defensive and reluctant to engage. If we couldn’t trust to have civil, predictable interactions, many of us wouldn’t leave our homes at all. If the past two months has taught us anything, it’s that the future isn’t the least bit predictable. Whatever past behaviors we were relying on to assess and make future decisions have become irrelevant and not applicable to the times in which we now find ourselves.

For example, with respect to masks some of us believe they will be vital to helping us confidently travel amongst people while others feel that masks are not necessary. Regardless of where we are on this subject, our feelings of trust and security are driving our mindset. Those of us that believe wearing masks matters will look at others without masks with some suspicion. We’ll consider them reckless, ignorant, or disrespectful of others for not taking “obvious” steps to protect themselves and us. If, on the other hand, we’re in the camp that is less enthusiastic about masks, we’ll see those wearing them as having something to hide.

Though we may not be feeling the full extent of the above, perhaps some of our customers are?

Though we may not be in a position to change the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we do have various options available to help us manage. Two coping strategies have been identified by psychologists. The first, which many of us may be defaulting to and which is at the root of our Wuhan Weight, is less constructive. Emotion-focused coping involves actions which seek to reduce negative emotions associated with the stress of not having our security needs satisfied which are not healthy. We try to suppress stress by drinking or doing drugs. We try to distract ourselves with mindless activities like watching TV. We try to embrace some positive feelings through eating. Yes, we are able to avoid thinking about and feeling bad about our new world, but we are only temporarily putting the pain aside. Some of these approaches may have been the default for many of us. We’re falling into what feel like comfortable patterns, yet offer consequences. We’re packing on some pounds while getting no further away from the challenges we face. We also aren’t much use to others when pursuing these activities.

A more constructive coping method is called Problem-Focused coping. Using this approach, we would try to seek social support to help us manage our difficulties. Additionally, we could consider seeking information to help us understand the context or problem solve. This approach is more constructive and helps us hold back our bulging bellies. It also makes us a bit more pleasant to be around.

All of this adds up to offer insurance brokerages a bit of an opportunity to shine. Insurance is all about security and trust. The service itself is about protecting people’s priorities. Our service is to provide comfort. Hence the symbol of the warm blanket offering security that is at the heart of so many insurance commercials and organizations. The role of comforter is a crucial one, even more so in today’s times. We can lean into trying to be the exact opposite of what are “natural” default response may be. Crises create self-centered thinking. Most of us become consumed with how we’re affected, what we’re losing, how we’re hard done by; and, as a result, all we think about is how will we take care of ourselves. This is common sentiment. Most are feeling and acting this way. Our value is to recognize this and then help others constructively navigate their way forward. We can add value in some small way by providing the things they are lacking – security and trust. We can do this by offering constructive, reassuring information. We can do this using humor. Finally, we can try to do this by offering a sense of normalcy or complementing routine.

Summary Points:

  • Uncertainty in our environments is universally experienced as stress.
  • As anxiety increases, so does our susceptibility to become irritable and aggressive.
  • We become more prone to acting impulsively.
  • When under duress, our decisions are likely to create a mess.
  • Where we’re exposed to difficult conditions, we become preoccupied with survival: safety and security while foregoing opportunities for growth.
  • We all sense that these are difficult times. Our security is threatened. Our spider senses are tingling. This is true for each of us and our customers.
  • When our sense of safety is stymied, we are likely to trust less.
  • All of this adds up to offer insurance brokerages a bit of an opportunity to shine.
  • Our service is to provide comfort.