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A Psychological Survival Guide for the Pandemic

How to emerge intact and maybe even better in some way.

There are three main problems with quarantined life during the coronavirus pandemic: anxiety, boredom, and lack of structure. (This essay doesn't reflect the very real effect of financial anxiety as well, which deserves separate discussion).

Anxiety is not a problem in itself, unless it is too little or too much. Anxiety is normal; there’s a classic curve of optimal anxiety for normal functioning (the Yerkes-Dodson Law):

Wikimedia Commons
The Yerkes-Dodson Law of Optimal Anxiety
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Put in the language of evolutionary psychology, we are wired for fight or flight when faced with danger: If you have too little anxiety, the predator catches you; if you have too much, you're frozen in fear and can’t fight or flee. A moderate amount is good but the timing is important.

In medical school, a famous teaching is that people who worry too little before they have a heart attack do badly; they get some chest pain, ignore it, and die. People who worry too much after they have a heart attack also do badly; once they’re diagnosed and treated, worry isn’t helpful, and causing the body to produce more steroid hormones, which are harmful to the heart. You have to worry before the heart attack, not afterwards.

We needed to be worried before the pandemic, not afterwards.

A month ago, when so many Americans were in denial, and blamed the current president’s political enemies – that was the time to worry. Denial, not hysteria, was the risk. Now, there’s no need to be extra-fearful; the risks are clear; it’s time to keep calm and carry on, following social distancing rules.

Boredom is a result of a lack of meaningful activity in life. Work often fills that space, but quarantine makes work less available. So new avenues of meaning have to be found. Family time, of course, is important, but other resources exist, including old television shows, movies, and – not to be forgotten – books.

Lack of structure is a key aspect to quarantine life, and well known to be associated with depression. The school and work routines of the world are “zeitgebers” – time-givers. They are external means of telling us when to get up, when to eat, when to sleep, when to work. Now, we have to be our own time-givers, and that has to be a conscious act. The good news is that you now control your schedule, and so you can do things that might have been difficult to manage in the past, such as reading daily.

The ten rules below will help you keep social distancing from becoming social isolation, and will prevent quarantine from morphing into depression. Lemonade from lemons, silver linings - the cliches have meaning. But the deepest meaning is this:

Now that you know what a crisis feels like, the only question is whether it will make you stronger.

With this goal in mind, I’ve prepared ten rules to survive the pandemic psychologically intact, physically healthy, and perhaps even a bit wiser in the end.

1. Pick up a book and read for one hour a day

Books have been called the garden of the wise. Each book is a person, waiting to speak to you. Get to know the moral radius of the universe. There’s a lot of wisdom that hasn’t made it to the internet.

2. Find a space and call it your own.

If you live in a house with family, choose a room to do your reading and working and relaxing, away from others. Family bonding is great, but you need to be able to separate.

3. Limit the news.

Limit television news to one hour daily, and that excludes lengthy presidential press conferences as well as hour-long cable news opinion shows. Get an outside view: BBC World News for an hour is enough.

4. Limit social media and personal email.

Every morning at the same time, sit down and do your personal email and social media. One hour each is plenty. The rest of the day, don’t look at your phone for social media and don’t check email. Repeat the next day.

5. Walk outside.

Getting outside once daily for about 30 minutes is a must. Walk the dog, stroll the neighborhood. Make sure you smile and wave at people you meet, and even hold a conversation at a distance with a mask. This is the only outside social contact most people will get.

6. Order fancy coffee for delivery.

This is a healthy splurge (coffee, though not caffeine, lengthens telomeres, which fights aging) and helps those in the economy who are hurting, such as cafes. Online ordering is a chance to reach beyond the usual stores and support coffee growers who are committed to fair trade and economic growth in poor countries. (Suggestions that I've stumbled across, without any personal connection: Sweet Unity coffee in Tanzania, run by Jackie Robinson's son; or Principio Coffee in Alabama, that supports a village in Honduras). Or support a local cafe that roasts its own coffee and is an important local employer (for example, Metropolis Coffee in Chicago).

7. Eat less.

Now that you can’t go to restaurants - which tend to cause weight gain due to huge portions and excess use of fats and butter - and are supposed to limit trips to grocery stores, it’s a great chance to eat less. We in the West eat too much; nobody needs to have a pint of ice cream every week. Eat less so you don’t gain weight and don’t have to shop so much. And keep it up later. You’ll be healthier in the long run. (Do treat yourself to that ice cream now and then.)

8. Watch old TV shows and reconnect to our past.

Two forms of entertainment don’t work without an audience: stand-up comedy and sports. It’s hard to watch Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Kimmel streaming from home, so watch those who made them possible. I recommend Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett (see Amazon prime video). In the process – watching Cavett interview Charlton Heston or Groucho Marx - you’ll revisit the decades that made our society what it is today, and learn how we got to where we are.

9. Don’t schedule up your day. Let time flow.

You might react to lack of structure by giving too much attention to time, as if you can keep your usual work schedule at home. Remember, there’s no one at the office, and you don’t need to fill all your “work” hours. And, without the zeitgeber of commuting, you can let work spill into the evening. You can drop the Puritan code during a pandemic. Skip the meeting that’s optional; leave a call early; block off hours in the middle of the day. Make time to practice points 1-8 above.

Some basic zeitgebers: Go to bed before midnight, wake up before noon; stop working by 6 PM; and call it a day.

10. Wear deodorant.

This is not a rule but a request, more relevant now than wearing sunscreen: There’s no need to be smelly around the house.