Talking Points

Did your brain get hooked on the thrill of the pandemic?

Are you finding it difficult to get back to ordinary activities as COVID-19 restrictions relax? Do you feel anxiety around doing things you used to do all the time? Are your feelings about going back to normal decidedly mixed?

Full disclosure: My feelings are not mixed; I have no such anxiety; and I have gone back to pre-pandemic life without a second thought. My mask is still in my purse, but it's largely a relic now. Never did I consider wearing it voluntarily when the local mandate dropped several weeks after I was fully vaccinated.

But I know not everyone feels as I do. I recently read — but can't recall where — a suggestion that we'd need 16 more months after the 16 months of American pandemic to socially recover. I don't need it, but the idea has an audience. And in a thought-provoking Tuesday post at his Substack, Addison Del Mastro, a contributor to The Week, proposes a possible explanation for that feeling:

As a young healthy person [at remote risk of a severe COVID-19 case], [during the height of the pandemic] I could both imagine myself at risk and know in my mind that I wasn't, really. It all kind of felt like starring in a disaster film. I know that sounds frivolous, and let me be clear, I don't mean that I really miss it, much less that I'd breezily accept the suffering others went through for a little more daily excitement. I'm not agreeing with myself, I'm just observing myself. And what I'm observing is that unfamiliarity amid familiar surroundings, the sense of avoidable but omnipresent danger, the feeling that you're taking your life into your hands with every trip out of the house, or with every readjustment of your mask, is kind of weirdly addictive and energizing. [Addison Del Mastro]

I haven't seen this idea thus expressed before, but it could make sense of some behavior I've recently observed. It's also intriguing in light of several polls from the past six months showing a subset of the public wants to keep pandemic restrictions in place indefinitely. And it fits with my layman's understanding of how our brains work (especially as most recently informed by Nicholas Carr's book on the internet, The Shallows), the way habits and our sense of normalcy aren't merely mental states but physically reinforced by our brain chemistry.

So, what about you: Do you observe the same thing in yourself? Did your brain get hooked on the thrill of the pandemic?