If You Suffer from Urgent Normal Syndrome, Ask for Help
A woman finds a mask in her coat pocket, leftover from the 2021 mandate. It triggers such a violent emotional reaction in her mind that she throws the mask across the room and starts sobbing, then tweets about the experience. This woman might be suffering from urgent normal syndrome.
What’s that, you ask?
As Covid continues to spread worldwide, many people are finding it difficult to accept reality. They refuse to examine facts, even when they’re presented in forms that are easy to comprehend. Instead, they insist on reclaiming an obsolete version of “normal” that involves large indoor gatherings without any precautions. This could be you or someone you love. Do they need help?
The short answer is yes.
Do you have Urgent Normal Syndrome?
Over the last few years, some of us adapted to pandemic life. We learned about the very real risks posed by Covid infections that appear “mild” at first but later lead to disability and chronic illness, even severe life-ending events like heart attacks and strokes. We educated ourselves and each other on appropriate protections like N95 masks and clean air. We learned how to live happy, fulfilling lives without risking our health or putting others at risk.
Despite a wealth of information on these topics, many people have been engaging in what psychologists and medical researchers would consider reckless behavior that puts their health at risk and endangers their loved ones. They seem to romanticize the lives they led before the pandemic, almost relishing long commutes and countless hours spent in office buildings they once abhorred. They demonstrate an obsession with returning to “normal.”
For lack of a better term, some of us have started referring to these behaviors as urgent normal syndrome (UNS).
Urgent normal syndrome is defined by:
- Unhealthy attraction to crowded indoor spaces.
- Anxiety at the sight of masks or air purifiers.
- An urge to downplay threats.
- Avoidance of “bad news.”
Reachers have identified a number of unhealthy dynamics in group psychology that can make someone more vulnerable to urgent normal syndrome. First, groups can demonstrate normalcy bias that inhibits their normal fight or flight response. As Amanda Ripley has argued in Unthinkable, “large groups of people facing death act in surprising ways. Most of us become incredibly docile… Usually, we form groups and move slowly, as if sleepwalking in a nightmare.”
Researchers have shown how normalcy bias has hampered our response to the pandemic. As one article in the Journal of Community & Public Health notes, “social shaming reinforces our normalcy bias. It’s not cool to overreact.”
Collective amnesia also plays a role in urgent normal syndrome. As sociologist Alessandra Tanesini writes, “Communities often respond to traumatic events in their histories by destroying objects that would cue memories of a past they wish to forget.” Communities actually spread what she calls “memory ignorance” in order to suppress past mistakes, unpleasant memories, and divergent thought. According to Tanesini, this memory ignorance serves as “a form of self-deception or wishful thinking in the service of self-flattery.”
A third flaw plays a final role in urgent normal syndrome, and it’s called reactance. Initially proposed by Jack Brehm, reactance describes an intense desire among individualists to downplay threats and risks, especially if they perceive a loss of their personal freedom as a result.
We’ve witnessed an unsettling surge in all of these behaviors over the last few years, as more and more people encourage and even reward each other for disregarding the health and safety of those around them. We’ve especially seen cultural amnesia at work as otherwise highly educated people try their hardest to remove masks and air purifiers from public settings, as if they don’t even want to see them because they trigger such negative thoughts or painful memories.
It’s a serious condition.
Signs of Urgent Normal Syndrome
Here are a few signs that you could be struggling with UNS and might need to seek help from a professional:
- You actively avoid current research on Covid or frequently say, “I don’t want to hear about it. I’m trying to stay positive.”
- You feel the urge to mock or ridicule anyone who’s taking precautions or staying informed.
- You feel uncomfortable at the sight of someone wearing an N95 mask or using an air purifier.
- You dismiss advice about protection with phrases like “It’s over” or “It’s in God’s hands now.”
- You ignore or downplay symptoms of long-term illness as “allergies” or say “I’m just feeling off.”
These symptoms align with other behavioral disorders that psychologists have recently discovered, including toxic positivity, as well as wishful and magical thinking. In general, people who suffer from UNS may demonstrate a more general belief that they can protect themselves from negative events by suppressing their emotions and ignoring their surroundings. Consequently, they engage in behaviors that may harm their health in the long run.
Research has shown that certain groups are not as vulnerable to UNS. These include neurodivergent personality types like autistics, introverts, and highly sensitive people. By contrast, those who identify as extroverts or as highly social may need professional help finding ways to manage their unhealthy urges. The public generally regards neurodivergents as abnormalities, but many of them possess strengths that make them much more aware of threats and more resistant to peer pressure. During emergencies, they’re more reliable.
You can trust them.
When does normal become unhealthy?
If you’re worried that you might be dealing with UNS or a related problem, ask yourself the following:
- Do I understand the full health implications of a Covid infection that appears “mild?”
- Why does it bother me so much that someone I know is still choosing to protect themselves and their families?
- Is it possible that I’ve chosen not to educate myself about Covid because it would make my own life less convenient or less “normal” than it used to be?
- Do I often feel a need to fit in? Could peer pressure explain why I’ve decided to stop protecting myself from a disease with clear links to heart disease, stroke, brain damage, and overall cognitive decline?
- Is it really unreasonable to install air purifiers in my home or workplace and wear a mask during meetings and other social events, or is that something I’ve simply been hearing?
- Is attending a party, festival, dinner, concert, game, or some other event without taking any precautions really worth compromising my long-term health or hurting someone I love?
If you discover that your current perception of reality doesn’t align with the actual facts on Covid, it could be time to reevaluate your definition of normal. You could be suffering from UNS. Talk to your friends who are still taking precautions. They could be a source of comfort and stability.
You don’t have to live in denial.
Ask someone for help.