As the novel coronavirus began to spread, so did the idea that 5G networks were to blame — or Bill Gates, or a ring of satanic pedophiles trying to divert attention from itself. Perhaps the virus was created in a lab as a bioweapon, or by pharmaceutical companies to boost sales of drugs and vaccines. More recently, the rumors fixated on President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis: Believers in QAnon, for example, tweeted that arrests of his deep-state enemies were going to occur while he was in isolation.
None, of course, is true.
Conspiracy theories such as these swirl around us like noxious germs, targeting the mind instead of the body. And in the same way that our immune system can leave us more vulnerable to pathogens, our emotional state can make us more open to false — and potentially harmful — beliefs. People who feel scared, confused, alone and under siege are especially at risk of coming under the sway of conspiracy theories, experts say. But there are steps we can take to protect ourselves from these dangerous ideas.
The first may be understanding where these ideas come from. “Conspiracy theories tend to flourish in times of crisis,” says Karen Douglas, a social psychologist at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom who focuses on belief in conspiracy theories. Humans have an innate need for knowledge and certainty, to feel safe, secure and in control, and to feel good about ourselves and the groups we belong to, she adds. “When these needs are frustrated, conspiracy theories might seem to offer some kind of relief.” Rather than thinking that a worldwide pandemic can be sparked by one tiny pathogen’s random leap from animal to human, some might find it more comforting to believe the virus was man-made in a lab.
According to an August study in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, the coronavirus pandemic has generated more than 2,000 rumors, conspiracy theories and other false claims. As wacky as some of these ideas are, they can have serious consequences, the study said; misinformation can undermine health officials and prevent people from seeking necessary treatment. Research published in Psychological Medicine in May, for example, indicates that those who believe in coronavirus-related conspiracy theories are less likely to follow social distancing guidance and would be less willing to get vaccinated.
It’s typically easier to prevent conspiratorial thinking than it is to correct course once someone is entrenched in it, experts say. People who are invested in a certain belief often aren’t interested in changing, though there are exceptions. “I had a client reach out to me who was very drawn into a conspiracy theory, and it was making her anxious,” says Jenny TeGrotenhuis, a certified clinical trauma therapist based in Kennewick, Wash. “She did a wise thing: She checked it out with me and with others.”
That’s one of eight strategies that experts say can help you manage your emotions and inoculate yourself against conspiracy theories.
Turn off the news, or whatever else is making you anxious. Emotions don’t just happen to us; we have a lot of control over what we feel and when, says Jill Rathus, a psychology professor at Long Island University and co-director of Cognitive Behavioral Associates in Great Neck, N.Y. One of the best ways to curb intense negative feelings is to avoid or dial back on whatever is causing them, she suggests.
So all that doom-scrolling? Uninstall Twitter from your phone. And those 24/7 news alerts? Turn off notifications. Think of it as watching what you put in your head the same way you watch what you put in your body.
Practice critical thinking. People often believe in conspiracy theories because of “lazy thinking,” says Nadia Brashier, a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University who studies why people fall for fake news and misinformation. “We need to be nudged to consider whether the claims in front of us are accurate. So, slowing down and asking yourself, ‘Is this information biased or unlikely to be true,’ can be really helpful.”
Although many conspiracy-theory believers consider themselves to be critical thinkers, closely examining their evidence might help them see otherwise, Douglas adds. For example, does all the conspiracy-theory-related material come from one type of source, while non-conspiracy-theory information comes from different sources? That can be a clue that something is off.
Change your perspective. Try thinking about a situation that triggers negative feelings in a way that will change its emotional impact. For example, parents might point out to a child who’s struggling with staying at home for an extended period of time that isolation is often part of an adventure; in fact, astronauts train for it. That new perspective can help reframe the experience into something more positive.
This approach is called cognitive reappraisal, says Nicole Giuliani, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon who has expertise in health behaviors, emotions and self-regulation. Research suggests that those who use the technique are more likely to have closer relationships, fewer depression symptoms and greater life satisfaction. It can also diffuse the strong emotions linked with conspiracy theories.
Connect — and consult. Feeling isolated and disconnected — emotions plenty of people have struggled with during the pandemic — are primary reasons people fall for conspiracy theories, Rathus says.
Make an effort to remain connected, and remember that social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation. Watch the same movie as a friend, even if you’re in different places, or schedule a Zoom book club meeting. Make plans to meet outdoors — at a park, for example.
If you do become intrigued by a conspiracy theory, talk to others before you decide it’s valid. “Think through all the wise and sound people you know and trust,” TeGrotenhuis says. “Think about your peers and mentors. Are they following this conspiracy theory? Check it out and see if they’re thinking along those lines as well.”
Try guided imagery. Visualizing positive outcomes can help clamp down on the intense emotions that might make you more vulnerable to harmful conspiracy theories. Picture yourself in a happier time — at the beach during a vacation or visiting a relative you haven’t seen in months, Rathus suggests. Or imagine what you’ll do once it’s safe to resume old routines.
Then, challenge your brain to counter all the “what ifs.” Replace, “What if the worst happens?” with something such as, “What if we have a safe, effective vaccine, and life returns to normal?”
“Our brains are wired to pick up threat,” Rathus says. “There’s no incentive to get stuck on what could go well, because evolutionarily, that kept us safe. But in times like this, when there’s so much threat to pick up, it bombards us quite painfully.”
Do one task a day that makes you feel in control. It can be big or small: searching for a new job or washing that days-old tower of dishes. “Keeping in charge of your space and feeling more in control of your life makes you less prone to feeling like other people are pulling the strings,” says Nathaniel Herr, an associate professor of psychology at American University.
Working on a project, such as growing a window herb garden or decluttering your house, can also help decrease feelings of powerlessness. Rathus refers to it as building mastery. Doing something every day that helps us feel more competent and in control of our lives is “an incredible lift to our emotions.”
Take good care of yourself. Eat well, exercise every day, get enough sleep — you’ve heard it before. But “sometimes, it’s the seemingly simple things that are really hard,” Herr says, such as taking medications as prescribed and keeping an eye on alcohol consumption. Just as not getting enough sleep can make us overwhelmed and snappy the next day, it can also leave us with spiraling thoughts. “Trying to keep your equilibrium on that level is a good way of protecting yourself from feeling strong emotions,” Herr says.
Accept the circumstances. “There’s not a lot we can control about the pandemic or wildfires or other major stressors these days, so it can be freeing to stop trying to fight these negative feelings and just accept them,” Giuliani says. Calming strategies such as deep breathing and meditation can help. Or consider acceptance and commitment therapy, she suggests — a therapeutic approach to learning to make peace with your circumstances.
Angela Haupt is a writer and editor based in the District. Follow her on Twitter @angelahaupt.