Our grown children are in their households. We're in ours. We may be in the same city or not. We did whatever we did over Thanksgiving but now the Christmas-New Year holidays are ahead of us. So are worsening pandemic numbers. We all yearn for a "normal" holiday time together. And yet, there is danger in our gathering together.
So here we are again, grappling with the question of how much risk we to take to be with our grown children during the holidays--to say nothing of our siblings, aunts, uncles and close friends.
I've been reading some studies on how our brains work in assessing risk and bringing us to whatever decisions we make in life. Covid-19, it turns out, complicates everything.
How we make decisions:
Under normal circumstances the different regions of our brain assess emotions and information, tapping into our personality and tendencies for risk as well as our understanding of risk as it relates to our age and health. That's all factored into making a decision.
Covid-19 is not normal. The pandemic presents the brain with novel scenarios and information. Most of us have never experienced a severe pandemic and the many unknowns that come with it. That may lead us to look at how others are responding. We also draw on our personal experience of the pandemic itself, especially if we've witnessed someone becoming ill or dying. Our identity also affects our decision-making. Neuroscientist Gaurav Suri points to mask-wearing, behavior that early in the pandemic was influenced by how we identify politically.
The brain clings to signals that things are normal — supermarkets are open, the cat climbs on your lap, you take walks. We desire normalcy. Neuroscientists suggest that may be why people come to different conclusions about their risks and make decisions based on the interaction and strength of many different networks.
Challenges to our ability to assess risk: Not only are we dealing with pandemic fatigue and the yearning for a return to more balanced life, we're also experiencing the stirrings of memory, joy and meaning that are part of getting together during the holidays.
Make a risk budget: “As people make decisions about doing different things, it’s important they understand that any risk you take is additive. So, if you engage in one area that’s risky, you should try to reduce risk in other areas when you can,” says Dr. Leana Wen.
Kayt Sukel suggests making a risk budget, which she describes this way: “If you want to get a haircut, great — but then maybe you don’t go out for a meal. If you are thinking about in-person school because it’s best for your family, then skip birthday parties and other social events."
The bottom line: "A budget can be empowering. It’s a way to live your values and still protect you and yours from harm," Sukel says. "It’s also a way to push some of those factors like stress and social factors to the side so they don’t have an outsized influence on your decisions."
These are the worst of times for Covid-19 fatigue. Vaccines are here. Enough of us may be immunized by summer. By then it will likely be safe to see friends and family in-person again--go on vacation, eat at our favorite restaurants and even take in a show at a theater. The end is in sight. But it's not here yet. Scientists fear we may let down our guard and not make the best decisions for our family's health during the December holidays.
No shaming here. We all have different tolerances for risk and different risk budgets. We need to respect that, especially in these times of stress.