Through a recent poll, I discovered—unsurprisingly—that the coronavirus outbreak has been hugely stressful for a lot of people around the world. The top reasons for stress (in decreasing order of intensity) are:
- The passing of a close one (or the prospect of it)
- Job insecurity
- Feeling socially isolated (or lonely)
- Feeling unproductive
- Feeling overburdened by having to take care of the family while WFM (working from home)
- Marital instability
- Feeling cooped up with nothing to do
In the rest of this post, I’ll discuss some tips on how to deal with these stressors, starting with the first: coping with the passing of a close one (or the prospect of it).
Although less than one-twentieth of those infected with the coronavirus ultimately pass away, this percentage is much higher for those above the age of 60.
Plus, for a variety of reasons, those in certain countries have had it far worse than those in others. If you had someone pass away because of COVID-19, I feel for you. Not that we need findings to prove this, but they do show that the death of a close loved one is one of life’s biggest stressors.
Coping with the loss of a loved one
What can I—or really, anyone—say to someone who’s experienced the passing of a loved one? What we do know from research is that adopting a spiritual attitude can help. Here’s an anecdote from the Buddha’s life that might help.
Kisa Gautami was a young woman from a wealthy family who was happily married to an important merchant. When her only son was 1 year old, he fell ill and died suddenly. Kisa Gautami was struck with grief; she could not bear the death of her only child. Weeping and groaning, she took her dead baby in her arms and went from house to house, begging all the people in the town for news of a way to bring her son back to life.
Of course, nobody could help her, but Kisa Gautami would not give up. Finally, she came across a Buddhist who advised her to go and see the Buddha himself.
When she carried the dead child to the Buddha and told him her sad story, He listened with patience and compassion, and then said to her, "Kisa Gautami, there is only one way to solve your problem. Go and find me four or five mustard seeds from any family in which there has never been a death."
Kisa Gautami was filled with hope and set off straight away to find such a household. But very soon she discovered that every family she visited had experienced the death of one person or another. At last, she understood what the Buddha had wanted her to find out for herself—that suffering is a part of life, and death comes to us all. Once Kisa Guatami accepted the fact that death is inevitable, she could stop her grieving. She took the child's body away and later returned to the Buddha to become one of his followers.
What I like about the story is that the Buddha did not perform a miracle and bring the child back to life. Rather, he made Gautami realize that because some things in life—like death—are inevitable; it’s better to make peace with this fact.
What will also help cope with the passing of a loved one is to connect with people from your faith. Consider live-streaming Sunday mass, or attending virtual satsangs. (You can Google live events that, based on your faith, most appeal to you.) Reading books that help us adopt a larger perspective about life—like Paul Kalanithi’s or Atul Gawande’s—can also help us come to terms with death.
What if no one close to you has passed on, but you feel fearful that they might? This situation is particularly relevant for those with relatives or friends who live far away—in a different region or country. If you are in this situation, it becomes even more important to take care of yourself—physically and mentally. It’s when you feel physically and mentally well that you'll be better able to cope with emotional stress. So, lead a healthy lifestyle: Eat healthy food—not junk—and get at least 20 (ideally 45) minutes of exercise every day. Even a gentle walk will help, as will yoga. And most importantly, get good sleep. (I elaborate on these aspects toward the end of this post.)
On top of this, stay in touch with your loved ones as much as you can. Call them every day, multiple times a day if needed. And when you communicate with them, try to make the conversation as lighthearted as you can. That will make them feel better, and findings show that those who feel happier have better-functioning immune systems.
Findings also show that those who can see the lighter side in challenging situations are more likely to get the social support they need. So, for instance, when you talk to a friend or relative about a sick parent, you'll naturally want to vent. However, don’t forget to also talk about funny anecdotes involving the parent. That will make it much easier for the friend or relative to emotionally support you.
Coping with job insecurity
Let’s face it: Life is full of uncertainties, and there’s just no way to avoid it. The reason this is stressful is that uncertainty is instinctively aversive to us. We’d rather that life is predictable and under our control—especially when it comes to the big things, like job security and marital stability. There’s a good chance that both of these are under threat because of the coronavirus outbreak.
So, how to cope with this situation? Here are three things I would suggest:
1. Act, rather than ruminate.
As Goethe said, “action has magic, grace, and power in it.” So, rather than marinate in the stress and anxiety caused by uncertainty about your job situation, take action. What action might you take? Well, if you are currently out of a job, contact people that you think might be able to help you out. And as you do that, do not expect to hear back from them immediately—or at all. People are busy, and those in a position to offer jobs are probably getting inundated with applications. So, play the numbers game: Send out feelers to as many people as you can, and be willing to negotiate on salary and other benefits.
You can also simultaneously act on “trimming the fat.” Now’s a good time to cut out unnecessary expenses. Take a quick look at all your expenses (most credit cards will allow you to calculate your expenses by categories on their websites) and cut out unnecessary ones (e.g., laundry). Also, stop paying for services you no longer need (e.g., gym, massage memberships). (However, if you can afford it, continue paying for your maid and cleaners—they are probably even worse off in this situation than you are!)
2. Adopt a far-sighted perspective.
How are you likely to feel about the current period of uncertainty once it is over? Imagine, for example, a day two years from today. Chances are, the coronavirus outbreak will be a distant dream—something “interesting” that happened “a while back.” If you don’t believe me that that’s how you are likely to view the current period, think back to the last time something big and negative happened—like when you lost your job or were anxious about graduating from college or had a break-up. Don’t they seem like distant dreams now?
The truth is, although we dislike uncertainty, life without any uncertainty would be terribly dull. Uncertainty spices our lives up, and life’s stressors help us learn and grow. This is precisely why past negative events, particularly the ones that occurred two years ago or earlier, don’t seem as negative anymore; with the passage of time, we recognize their role in helping us become better, more skilled, beings.
3. Practice being mindful.
As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” This is a very profound statement. At its most basic level, subjective reality is just a bunch of sensations—colors, taste, sounds, etc.—that we perceive through our senses. And while sensations can be pleasant or unpleasant, when you tune into them without the accompaniment of mental commentary, they are not, in themselves, good or bad.
One way to experience this truth is to imagine, in your mind's eye, two knobs that you can turn up or down when you experience something. One knob is the pleasantness-unpleasantness knob, while the other is the curiosity knob. Imagine having control of both knobs and, instead of turning up the “pleasant-unpleasant” knob—which is what most of us tend to do most of that time—turn up the curiosity knob. That is, tune in to the sensations without any accompanying commentary.
That is, pay "bare attention" to the sensations within and around you, rather than paying "mind attention" to them. This is what mindfulness is all about, of course, and once you get the hang of it, you’ll realize that there’s perhaps no better ally to have in times of stress than this practice. Thankfully, we live in an age in which we have access to so many free resources for practicing mindfulness, including Headspace, Insight Timer, and Calm.
Coping with social isolation
We are highly social as a species, so staying connected to others is important for sanity, health, and happiness. While the current (lockdown) situation has arguably increased the opportunity to connect for those with families, it has definitely decreased it for those living alone. So, it’s not a big surprise that the lockdown has been tougher for those living alone.
Hence this suggestion: Find ways to connect virtually with others. Findings show that you’ll feel better if you can both see and hear the people with whom you connect, so try to connect over Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, etc., rather than over the phone. Some of you may feel that you are already connecting with others on WhatsApp or Facebook, and that’s good. But those ways aren’t as happiness-enhancing as is connecting synchronously in smaller groups.
Some of my friends meet up over Zoom every single evening for a "happy hour." They bring their own drinks to the session and just catch up and shoot the breeze. I have attended a few of these sessions, and although they aren’t quite the same as a face-to-face meet-up, they are nevertheless better than you’d expect them to be. So, just try it out (get a Skype or Zoom account if you have to; they are free), and let me know how it went!
Coping with feeling unproductive
My most important suggestion for staying productive is to identify the times of the day that you feel sharpest (I call it "cream time" in my online course on Employee Happiness; check out this exercise if you want to learn more about it quickly), and make sure that you don’t fritter it away doing meaningless things, like binge-watching Tiger King or doing chores. We all want to feel like we are progressing toward important goals in life, and when we fritter away time—especially our cream time—we naturally feel guilty and empty. So, make sure you are disciplined in protecting your cream time, which typically lasts about three hours. (My cream time is 8-11 a.m.) During this time, make it your goal to focus on the most important tasks you are currently handling. (You can use the Pomodoro technique to avoid procrastinating.) And once you have accomplished an important task, give yourself a little reward—like watching YouTube clips like this or having a nice cup of tea.
Making sure you don’t fritter away your cream time will increase your productivity, which should boost your happiness—but only if you don’t set unreasonably high goals of productivity. Remember that this is an unusual time, and it’s causing a lot of stress. Plus, we don’t have access to resources (people, information, office desktop, etc.) that boost our productivity. So, most of us can’t be as productive as we might have been before the pandemic. Go easy on yourself; this is not the time to beat yourself up!
Coping with feeling overburdened by having to take care of the family while WFM
One of the reasons the "lockdown" is wearing us down is that we don't like how the others in the house are spending their time. Most parents, for example, are disgusted with how much time kids are spending on digital devices. (Chances are, parents are disgusted with how much time they themselves are spending on digital devices!) Many parents are also stretched thin, having to make all meals at home, now that domestic help isn't available and takeout is banned in many places.
Here are three tips for dealing with this situation:
1. Spend quality time with family members. How can you do this? Here's an idea with four simple steps. The first step is to identify a one- to three-hour window each day during which everyone is (or can be) free of any obligations. (At home, this is between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.) Step 2 involves asking everyone in the family to identify a specific fun activity (e.g., play Scrabble, watch a movie, learn to sing a group song) in which everyone in the family can participate during this "free" time. Step 3 involves scheduling these activities into everyone's calendar for the next few days, one activity per day. (You can roll a dice to figure out the order of activities.) The fourth and final step, of course, is to actually engage in these activities as a family.
If you've young kids and like learning about how humans think and make decisions, check out Brainchild on Netflix. Adults will likely find 100 Humans (on a similar theme and also on Netflix) more appealing, although, fair warning: some episodes are quite risque! We've discovered that for step 1 to be a success, it is critical that everyone in the family not only participates in all the activities, but they participate (or at least pretend to participate) with full—100 percent—enthusiasm. When someone in our family doesn't participate in an activity with full enthusiasm, they lose their upcoming "activity slot"!
2. Schedule some alone time for everyone. Findings show that even extraverts need some alone time. One way to orchestrate this is to schedule alone time for everyone in the family—much like how I recommended scheduling "family fun" time in tip number one. Needless to say, you can't give someone a hard time for wanting to be alone during their alone time.
What can you personally do during your alone time? Whatever you fancy: read a book, take a bath, watch a movie, go for a walk (if the law allows you to), etc. I'd recommend carving out at least an hour of alone time each day (2 hours is even better) and using this time to do either yoga or physical exercise or both. I've been following this 20-minute yoga routine in the mornings and this 20-minute workout routine in the evenings—and they've been awesome! (If these videos aren't at the right level of intensity for you, search YouTube with appropriate keywords like "intense" or "beginner.")
3. My final tip is to have a "chores routine" for everyone in the house so that no one is stretched too thin. I've discovered that my kids (yes, even my kids!) don't necessarily object to doing the chores. What they object to is being asked to do the chores on short notice. So, if you can pencil in, ahead of time, who does what (dishes, laundry, folding clothes, vacuuming, etc.), not only are these chores more likely to get accomplished, no one person is overburdened. And what if a person who is supposed to accomplish a task doesn't do it, you ask? Well, a fair punishment is that they lose their "fun activity slot" for the coming week. (This has worked well so far at my home.) A word of caution here: Although the chores are more likely to get done, they may not get done perfectly (I won't name anyone here, but my wife or I typically have to do the dishes after one of my family members claims to have done them!). So be sure to aim for satisficing rather than for maximizing.
There’s an apocryphal story I heard as a young boy. A king was in love with a woman, but she had her heart set on someone else. Try as he might, the king couldn’t get the woman to fall in love with him. So, he went to his wise counselor for advice, who suggested that the king order the woman and her lover to spend a whole week in a remote cabin, tied to each other. The king was taken aback by this advice and retorted, “Are you crazy? I want to separate them—not unite them!” The wise counselor calmly replied with words to this effect, “Trust me! No one in the world can stand being in such close proximity to anyone else 24/7 for a whole week!”
It seems to me that a lot of married people around the world are personally experiencing the wisdom in the counselor's advice. What can you do if your marriage is under duress because of the constant and close proximity of your life-partner? Well, some of the things that we have already covered—like alternating between activities chosen by each party, sharing chores, and, of course, making sure to give each other space (i.e., getting alone time)—should help. If you are already doing all of these, and they are not helping, well, maybe it is time to consider separating when the time is right. (Sad, but perhaps the best of bad options.) Meanwhile, here’s a post I wrote a few years back—on "Dealing with Negative People"—that might help.
Feeling cooped up with nothing to do!
If this is your big problem, perhaps reading through the other problems has given you a sense that things could be worse—far worse! This is one of the easier stressors to cope with—particularly if you have strong internet connectivity. I have three main suggestions to make, all of which share the common theme of developing good habits in the long run; feel free to pick and choose the ones that are relevant for you.
1. My first tip is to lead a healthy lifestyle. Leading a healthy lifestyle means eating right, which presumably you are already doing—now that you are eating mostly home-cooked meals. (If you’d like to make more home-cooked meals, but are feeling challenged, check out this awesome website with tons of simple-yet-healthy recipes that are near-impossible to fluff up.) But it also means moving more, which is difficult when you are closeted at home.
This is why it’s all the more important to devote at least 40 minutes every day to some form of exercise. I do this 20-minute yoga routine in the morning, and this 20-minute exercise routine in the evening. Being healthy also means sleeping better—getting at least seven hours of solid sleep every night—which in turn means going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day. It also means not binge-watching TV late at night, and not consuming coffee in the afternoons, and not over-consuming alcohol at night. (Watching TV and consuming coffee and alcohol may temporarily relieve your stress, but make things worse the next day.)
2. My second tip is to practice emotional hygiene. That means taking care of your emotional health, and to do that, it’s also crucial that you do not overdose on coronavirus news. Budget a pre-set amount of time (I’d recommend one hour and definitely not more than two hours each day) to catch up on the news. (Needless to say, only watch reputed news channels and assume that anything you are forwarded on WhatsApp is, as a rule, “fake news.”) Then, stick to this pre-set time. Also, make sure that you do not use your cream time to catch up on the news. And don’t watch the news for at least two hours before going to sleep. Another thing you can do is practice resilience, which, perhaps not so coincidentally, is the focus this month on our app, The Happiness Accelerator. Yet another thing you can do is sign up on the HappySmarts Facebook page, on which you will find a daily dose of funny, lighthearted stuff that's guaranteed to boost your positivity.
3. My third and final tip is to pursue a hobby that you have always dreamed of but never got around to doing. Want to be a better singer, download the Smule app. Egyptian history, anyone? How about Mindfulness? Happiness in life? Happiness at work? (Why not, right?!) Well, thanks to the internet, the world is at your fingertips, and so, if you have ever thought, "If only I had more time, I'd do that," guess what? Your wish has been granted, and your time has come!
So, to summarize, the current situation is undoubtedly very stressful for a lot of people around the world. And given that the epidemic does not appear to be slowing down at the rate we'd like it to, stress levels are likely to continue to be high for the foreseeable future. So, getting rid of the stress may not be possible, but you can do several things to manage the stress.
Now, you may be one of those lucky few whose stress levels haven't gone up and are perhaps even lower than they were before. If so, consider helping out others in some way or the other. After all, tons of research shows that helping others is one of the most reliable ways of improving your happiness.
Good luck, and stay safe.