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5 Ways to Overcome the Psychological Stress of Coronavirus

You can maintain control despite uncertainty.

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

Yes, the coronavirus (COVID-19) is unpredictable, has deadly potential, and should be of great concern to just about every human on the planet. It might seem unfathomable that the virus could promote positive change. However, disasters have a weird way of making things better, once the initial problem is contained.

Way back in 1937, the Hindenburg airship explosion changed the course of aviation history for the better. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident resulted in substantial energy reform, leading to vast environmental improvements. The 9/11 attacks on America, although devastating, consequently promoted much safer air travel.

So, what could possibly be a positive consequence of a life-threatening disease? Well, there are at least five reasons why pessimistic media reports about the virus can be transformed into positive psychological benefits for individuals. Unlike much of the conflicting media reports that are based on limited information or conjecture, the recommendations below are based on research-based scientific evidence from the fields of psychology, education, and behavioral economics.

Critically evaluate information integrity

Where can you get reliable news about the virus? Before examining the potential for positive psychological outcomes of COVID-19, let's interpret some of the wide variation in what is reported about the virus. The percentage of people who are infected and those who die from the disease is much lower than what it may appear. According to tracking statistics, as of this writing, 6,687 people have perished as a direct result of the coronavirus infection, and 3,213 are from China.

The incidence of infection in China is much higher than what can be expected elsewhere because China has the triple whammy of conditions that exacerbate respiratory infections. The country has some of the worst air pollution on the planet. In addition, the smoking frequency in China is one of the highest in the world. When we put these factors together, there will be a natural tendency for higher mortality, and thus an inflated global mortality rate despite radically different environmental conditions.

Countries with better air quality and a lower frequency of smoking will have considerably lower death rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics. While any mortality is disturbing, the probability of death from the coronavirus is about 1,000 percent lower than the likelihood you will die in an accident, according to the CDC. The real lesson is that the media sensation about the coronavirus is an ideal opportunity to learn how to evaluate the accuracy and integrity of media sources.

Reject the principle of scarcity

Have you or someone that you know gone shopping lately specifically to buy more water, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, or disinfecting wipes, despite already having these supplies? My recent trip to Walmart revealed that almost none of the mentioned items were available. When people believe that resources are limited, we want more of whatever may be perceived as potentially scarce, even if we don't need it. Scarcity perceptions often lead to an emotional call to action designed to secure the dwindling resources and eliminate the pressing psychological fear of losing control.

According to social psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini, we have a fear of missing out, and when the perception of scarcity exists, we are highly motivated to overcome our misguided psychological reaction (2006). COVID-19 hysteria has brought the scarcity principle to the forefront of our thinking, and knowledge of the phenomenon can help improve our own day-to-day interactions. Now, we can learn to recognize advertising pitches that are designed to quickly separate us from our money. Be on guard for contrived scarcity messages, such as "limited time only," "the first 100 clients only," or "act now." The principle also applies to relationships; beware of the statement, "You are the only one for me," which is a message that cleverly leverages the scarcity principle, but is it accurate?

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

Embrace a time to build relationships

Sequestered in your home with family and friends is something we often covet but rarely attain, based upon conflicting schedules and busy lifestyles. Many of us only dream of being able to spend unlimited time with our loved ones. Considering that one of the most basic psychological needs is the ability to forge positive and enduring relationships (Ryan & Deci, 2000), we should jump at the chance to be with those we care for most.

A 14-day quarantine should not be looked upon as a prison sentence, but the time to renew positive relationships with others or patch up strained relationships by overcoming a common enemy—the coronavirus. Now is the ideal time to strengthen existing bonds that may be taken for granted during more prosperous and busy times. Instead of ruminating on the inconvenience and impact of social distancing, take some time to reflect on what you value most, and verbalize to those who rely on you for positive support through difficult times.

Live for the present

I once took my teenage daughter on vacation to see the magnificent Grand Canyon in Arizona. While Rebecca seemed engaged and awed about seeing a natural wonder, less than five minutes later, she was nagging me about where we were going for lunch, and what were we going to do next. Psychological research consistently reveals that subjective well-being (otherwise known as how we perceive the quality of our daily lives) means living in the present.

Yes, these are not the best of times, but a time to reflect on who we are and what is most important in life. Instead of dwelling on what might happen, focus on the present, caring primarily about the here and now and enjoying the moment, irrespective of the virus or what might come next. While a future-time perspective is also helpful for human motivation and well-being, a balanced-time perspective that avoids a future fixation or dwelling on the past is positively correlated with life satisfaction, general purpose, and overall happiness (Sobol-Kwapińska & Jankowski, 2015).

Set and reach goals that are usually impeded by lack of time

One thing we know for certain is that based on the social distancing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the massive cancellations in the worlds of entertainment, sports, and politics, we will need to fill our leisure time in other ways. Think of all the projects you have put off, all the books that you haven't had time to read, and all the things on your "to-do-list" that get pushed aside. Now is the perfect time for personal development.

One factor that is positively correlated with happiness is generating wisdom (Bergsma & Ardelt, 2012). When we take measurable steps toward enhancing our skills, we feel better about ourselves. With the availability and ease of access to online courses and instruction and plenty of idle time, you just might emerge from the coronavirus crisis both smarter and happier.

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Bergsma, A., & Ardelt, M. (2012). Self-reported wisdom and happiness: An empirical investigation. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(3), 481-499.

Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Harper Collins.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Sobol-Kwapińska, M. & Jankowski, T. (2015). Positive time: Balanced time perspective and positive orientation. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(4), 1511-1528.

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