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Volume 16, Number 4

The definition of a gyroscope is as follows: “A wheel or disk mounted to spin rapidly about an axis and also free to rotate about one or both of two axes perpendicular to each other and to the axis of spin so that a rotation of one of the two mutually perpendicular axes results from application of torque to the other when the wheel is spinning and so that the entire apparatus offers considerable opposition depending on the angular momentum to any torque that would change the direction of the axis of spin.”


Whew! This complicated and seemingly convoluted definition of a gyroscope seems to mirror our experience of the disruption of normalcy in recent days due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In response to information about the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic, including recommended or mandated responses, the necessary and ongoing adaptations that we are making can be compared to the work of a gyroscope. Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty to transform a noun into a verb by coining the term “gyroscoping” with reference to the challenge of maintaining equilibrium in the face of dramatic changes to life as we know it. And part of the challenge is uncertainty about how long it will be before some return to the usual is possible. This means that our gyroscoping is likely to continue for some time.

A gyroscope is an instrument found in many devices that require precise positioning, and uses the earth’s gravity to maintain orientation. Correspondingly, what is the reference point for the gyroscoping necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic? Certainly individuals use their own sense of meaning and purpose as guides for navigation in times of great challenge, but from a public health perspective it can be argued that “community” is the reference point of orientation required of us.

Public health is about the we, not the me, meaning that the priority for equilibrium in this crisis is the community, not the individual alone. Choices and behaviors that may be safe for a given individual may be hazardous to the community in this pandemic. And sometimes what is the best for the community is counterintuitive. For example, the notion of staying home and away from other people might not seem like a helpful thing to do, but in this circumstance it may be the most helpful thing one can do. And while taking extreme community measures may not seem appropriate to an individual’s particular situation, they are in the best interest of the we.

Social distancing, quarantine, and isolation, as indicated, are interventions aimed at benefiting the community, even though they come with consequences for the individual. There are real losses associated with these mitigation strategies, such as relationship interruptions and financial hardship. And more broadly there are tragic losses directly caused by the virus, including severe illness and loss of life. A myriad of emotional responses are occurring throughout the population: fear, loneliness, anxiety, sadness, anger, and grief, among others.

The perception of feeling little control and the associated fear can be accompanied by a focus on self rather than community. Hoarding of household items and goods are an example of this. Ignoring public health recommendations because one feels healthy or invulnerable is another form of selfishness. A we-focus rather than a me-focus is essential in this pandemic.

There are steps that persons can take to enhance coping on an individual basis. Among these are maintaining healthy routines to the extent possible, endeavoring to use sources of information that are scientifically-based and reliable, and making use of strategies for distraction and/or relaxation that help alleviate stress. And staying connected to others through virtual channels (phone, text, email, social media, or even letter-writing) can benefit both self and other, especially when physical separation is absolutely necessary. Importantly, this public health crisis requires behavioral responses that are aimed at benefiting the community at large, often at the cost of individual inconvenience and/or suffering.

Gyroscoping with “community” as the orienting factor, that is, making adjustments and adaptations that benefit the “we,” will contribute to the equilibrium that is critical to “flattening the curve” of this pandemic.


Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.

… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor, Director of Research, and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.




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