On Sunday 8th March, as the first wave of fear over the coronavirus swept the globe and induced panic shopping, two women fought over diminishing supplies of toilet paper at a Sydney supermarket. Two women, aged 23 and 60, were later charged with affray.

New South Wales police acting inspector Andrew New compared the incident with the Mad Max series of post-apocalyptic films: “There is no need for it. It isn’t the Thunderdome, it isn’t Mad Max; we don’t need to do that.”

Yet these two women felt they did—and they’re not alone. On 26 March, a 35-year-old woman in Norwich, England, was jailed after coughing at a police officer then claiming she had the coronavirus. The incident occurred when police spoke to the woman, who was drunk, after she kicked a parked car.

All three women began their day responding to the growing stress of the Covid-19 pandemic. All three ended up with a criminal record. (Men aren’t immune to panicky responses; a 60-year-old Arizona man died from ingesting chloroquine phosphate, a common aquarium cleaner, after President Trump suggested the chemical was effective in treating coronavirus.)

Simple formula

All three women fell prey to a simple psychological formula:

Unconscious fear + flashpoint = negative unconscious behaviour

For the two Australian women, the unconscious fear may have been the virus, or perhaps a vague sense of humiliation and shame at not having toilet paper. I saw a social media pot from one woman saying she feared lacking toilet paper more than being killed by the virus.

Either way, that fear propelled them to the Woolworths supermarket in Chullora at 7am. There’s a video of what happened next online. (No, I haven’t watched it and no, I’m not going to link to it.) From the perspective of emotional mechanics, the women hit a flashpoint that triggered their unconscious fear. Result: brawl, arrests, affray charges.

The Norwich incident was similar. We don’t know why the woman kicked a car or even why she was drunk. Whatever the driver, she was responding to stress by anaesthetising herself with alcohol, hit one flashpoint (the car) and then another (the police). In both instances she responded by lashing out.

The specifics of such situations are irrelevant. The important thing to understand is that we all have unconscious fears of one kind or another, and we all have our flashpoints. These fears are latent, dwelling out of sight (and out of mind) in the unconscious part of our psyche.

Emotions precede thoughts

One of the basic principles of emotional mechanics is that emotions precede thoughts. Under the right—or, should I say, the wrong—conditions, something happens that bypasses our rational mind and triggers a reaction. We never know if—or when—our unconscious fears will be triggered.

We have a choice. We can freeze, like a rabbit in the headlights of spiralling global events, or we can proactively work to improve our emotional cohesion.

This leaves us a choice. We can freeze, like a rabbit in the headlights of spiralling global events, or we can proactively work to improve our emotional cohesion.

This means consciously choosing to tackle deep-seated issues of low self-esteem, anxiety, shame, abandonment and any other debilitating psychological issues.

Lockdown gives us time to improve our physical health. Will you do the same with your psychological health?

Claire Mueller