A Princeton professor said we get used to awful statistics through repeated exposure, NPR reported. The inundation of death desensitizes us to hearing about it after a while, changing our perspective on the news. That reaction involves our stress response.
According to NPR, the litany of COVID-19 news may be having an unintended consequence on our psyches. “The deluge of grim statistics can dull our collective sense of outrage, and part of that has to do with how humans are built to perceive the world,” the article said.
NPR interviewed Elke Weber, a psychology professor at Princeton, who said that in war zones, the everyday risk becomes a sort of baseline, a given in which our brains get used to perceived danger. Professor Weber said that we only really get used to change, so a repeated constant is drowned out.
This kind of desensitization ties into the human brain’s response to stress, protecting us from threats in the world around us.
Stress and the Body, Pt. 1
“Stress can hurt the body; from an evolutionary perspective, you marshal a tremendous amount of resources to get you away from the things that bug you,” said Dr. John J. Medina, Affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “But there are limits. Many researchers believe that stress can only be handled in short bursts.”
Dr. Medina likened having a saber-toothed cat at our doorstep for years at a time to having a bad job in the 21st century. If you exhaust your supply of resources—both bioenergetics and psychological resources to handle the stress that comes into your life—you become deregulated to experiences.
“When you reach this stage, bad things begin to happen,” he said. “Effects on your cardiovascular system are legendary; you become at increased risk for atherosclerosis. This is a condition where junk builds up on the inside of your blood vessels and that puts you in danger of experiencing all kinds of bad things, from strokes to heart attacks.”
Stress and the Body, Pt. 2
Another physiological characteristic of stress is that it hurts cognition, although brief bouts of stress come with benefits.
“Mild stress can actually improve cognitive performance as long as the stress doesn’t last too long and isn’t too severe,” Dr. Medina said. “But the more stress lasts, and the more severe it becomes, the more cognitive damage occurs. Severe stress can inhibit fluid intelligence, problem-solving abilities, pattern matching, and memory—both short-term and long-term forms.”
In fact, the effect of stress on memory can be so serious that it’s been studied and given its own name—psychogenic amnesia.
“This is memory loss not due to identifiable disease,” Dr. Medina said.
He said that control is a big issue concerning whether stress hurts the body or cognition as well. Your feelings of control over any kind of stressful situation play a part in how you suffer from negative effects of stress.
“‘Control’ here is defined as a perceived ability to alter the environment in a predictable manner,” Dr. Medina said.
There’s no way to live a completely stress-free life. Everything from paying bills to reading bad news causes stress. However, there’s a marked difference between brief bouts of stress over which we feel a sense of control and long-term stress that makes us feel helpless. Statistics about COVID-19 appear to be the latter.
Dr. John J. Medina contributed to this article. Dr. Medina is an Affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He holds a PhD in Molecular Biology from Washington State University.