Covid 19 and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

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Part One: The Theory

Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs is a psychological theory that identifies human needs, and ranks them in terms of what should be addressed first. We often see the theory outlined in an infographic in the form of a pyramid, as shown here. There are different versions of the pyramid out there (do a quick google search if you’re curious), but in general with the theory, we start with the bottom layer with basic needs such as food, shelter, water, and sex, then move up through the layers of safety needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, to the top of the pyramid, self actualization needs. In other words, “lower” needs are the basic needs to be addressed first. Ideally, we meet each level of needs before moving onto the next level up.

An important part of this theory is noting that sometimes it is harder to meet a need higher up the pyramid, if a need down below on the pyramid it is not met. As a prime example of using Maslow’s theory within mental health programs, Los Angeles adopted the “Housing First” model for serving people who are chronically mentally ill and homeless. “Housing First” is a model of addressing homelessness that puts a person experiencing homelessness in housing before expecting them to work towards needs higher up the pyramid. In looking at homelessness through the the Maslow Model, the goal of “Housing First” programs is to give people the opportunity to heal their mental health concerns and trauma by first meeting their physical needs. If people don’t have to stress about having their basic needs met, then they can go on to worry about needs higher up the hierarchy, such as booking a job interview, getting sober, going to therapy or case management services, taking medication, going to school, and more. (In reality, it's a little more complicated than that. Many people experiencing homelessness would thrive under a “Housing First” program, but some people experiencing homelessness identify as "home free" and reject the idea of living in a home, or are just so used to living on the streets that living indoors is foreign and hard for them. This “Housing First” model is not a one size fits all method to addressing our homelessness issue, as the psychology around homelessness can be considered complex or outside of what homed people consider “normal”.)

Another clearcut example of this, is a lot of children living in low income or impoverished areas don’t get enough sleep or food to eat before going to school. Trying to fulfill the education need before the lower, more basic needs such as sleep and food, doesn’t usually lead to a recipe for success for the children in school. They need those physical needs met to thrive in school. Another example I have heard working in this field, which seems so simple but is so important, is a child didn’t have eye glasses, and that made it hard to see what was happening in class. Because they couldn’t see what was happening clearly, they got restless and displayed typical ADHD behaviors. But getting this child glasses helped them to more fully participate in school, and reduced their ADHD behaviors that were not actually the result of ADHD at all! So again, the basic physical health need of improved eyesight helped meet the higher up the pyramid need of succeeding in class.

These are more clearcut examples of applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs to how someone is functioning in our society, but it relates to every single human’s life. If you find yourself struggling in your current situation, it’s important to take an inventory of what needs are and aren’t being met for you. Chances are, you are trying to move up the pyramid without first addressing something down below, and addressing that lower (more basic) need can help you improve your situation. You can look to Maslow’s pyramid to help you understand your needs, but another place that has great documents to better understand your needs is the Center for Nonviolent Communication ( Here is a list of categorized, but not ranked, universal human needs:

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After reviewing Maslow’s Pyramid and this list from NVC, what basic or universal needs are unmet for you? What can you do today to bring you a step closer to meeting those needs? This can include asking for help if you can’t meet this need yourself.

Part Two: Hitting Reset During Covid 19

This is the week I decided to post about the Hierarchy of Needs for a reason. The scare with Coronavirus / Covid 19 has been very intense, and we notice people in some areas (here’s looking at you, Los Angeles), tapping back into their lower level, survival tendencies and hoarding supplies like food and toilet paper. Suddenly, the needs that are higher up the pyramid that people usually worry about don’t matter. We’re back to being all consumed by meeting needs from levels one and two. During disasters or crisis situations, this is frequently the case.

Having awareness of this tendency to step into survival mechanisms is important during a time like this, because this is such a widespread issue that can quite literally effect almost every person on this planet. Because we are all in this struggle together, it’s important to tap into meeting those lower level basic needs, but also focus on the need to take care of our communities as well. The major issues with these hoarding behaviors during this scare are 1) they come from panic, and panic isn’t a useful tool for effective, longer term solutions, 2) seeing other people hoard can cause someone to feel like they need to hoard too, it puts out the energy of scarcity, 3) when people hoard and take more than what they need, others get less than what they need to protect themselves which can fuel further spreading of the problem. It's okay to be scared. Let's work on acting out of planning, instead of out of fear.

As a planet we are in the midst of trying to survive this thing, but for me this outbreak has brought up some things to think about in terms of thinking about basic needs:

1) Privilege is not really protecting us right now. If we go to a store and they are out of stock of an item we want/need because of this pandemic, there’s not too much we can do.

2) A lot of us are experiencing “slight” inconveniences right now: we are working from home instead of being able to go to the office, our social events are being canceled, our entertainment is being canceled, and we’re being told to social distance ourselves and stay home. It’s not fun. But there are so many people out there who have to work and are putting their own safety at risk because there jobs are highly needed and are jobs they can’t do from home (medical staff, store clerks, cleaning crews, just to name a few. If you have one of these kinds of front line jobs to help the world through this mess, thank you for what you do!). People who are older or have their immune systems compromised due to another reason are have to take even more precautions than the average person to stay safe. Putting your perceived inconvenience into perspective can be so powerful for both building empathy for others, and building a foundation for gratitude when we aren’t dealing with something like this.

3) More of us are experiencing what it feels like to work with a limited situation: limited supplies and resources, limited activities we can do, less “guarantee” of physical safety in terms of if we’ll get sick or not. A big example of this is college students being kicked out of their dorms for sake of not spreading the virus, but some of those students rely on that student housing or their food plans at school to eat. For those students, this is such a hard situation and our hearts go out to them. Not to take anything away from the current pain and scare, but so many people go without their basic needs on a regular basis. Let this be a time where we can further learn to empathize and understand the situations of people who regularly go without what they need.

4) Your survival instincts are valid, and here is what to do with them to get your needs met, and the needs of others met: Stay informed. You don’t need to stay glued to the screen all day, but check for updates on protocol at least daily. Keep up with your hygiene, social distance as much as you can (you may have the immune system of a champ, but you could be carrying the virus without symptoms as pass it along unknowingly to someone who doesn’t have a great immune system), adopt new actions about what to do as they come up, and do some self care.

I’m not meaning to get preachy, but just setting up for my final point. This scare can be such a powerful lesson for building perspective into what is important, including making sure your basic needs met. We can call this scare a chance to hit the reset button and begin to builder healthier habits. An ideal healthy lifestyle from a mental health perspective, is a lifestyle where make sure you are living a balanced life where all of your needs have a chance to get met. Take a look at this self care wheel below:

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If you were to “hit the reset button” today, what new healthy habits would you adopt? Has this scare helped you realized anything that you need to be doing, that you aren’t doing yet?

Take care, be safe, and be aware of your surrounding and your actions. If this whole thing is too much for you to handle, reach out for support! You are not alone.