Coping with a Pandemic

Insights from the Science of Stress

Posted Mar 14, 2020

Concerns about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) appear to rise in tandem with the numbers of reported cases and fatalities. As the worldwide epicenter of the disease, Americans are particularly likely to feel anxious and stressed

Many of us are consciously or unconsciously asking ourselves: What can I do? 

Until we can answer that question – at least to some extent – I believe our response will be wanting.

Source: Source: Unsplash

From the decades of research conducted on stress, one consistent finding is we need – and therefore seek – some semblance of control. When something such as COVID-19 comes along that is both threatening and uncertain, many of us experience great distress. Part of this is because our sense of control is lacking.

As I wrote previously in my blog entry called “What To Do When Stressed:”

“There are two general ways of coping with stress. First, problem-focused coping involves addressing the underlying causes of a stressor. Second, emotion-focused coping involves addressing the difficult emotions that result.

Furthermore, there is a distinction to be made between avoidance-oriented coping and approach-oriented coping. When we engage in avoidance-oriented coping, we seek to avoid or distract ourselves from the underlying problems giving rise to our stress or the difficult emotions associated with stress. When we engage in approach-oriented coping, we actively seek to address our problems and directly work through the difficult emotion.

Usually, research finds, coping goes best when we use a blend of approach-oriented problem and emotion-focused coping. When we avoid or try to distract ourselves from the problem or the difficult emotion, we tend not to do as well.”

These coping methods suggest some ways to respond now.

We can do what we can to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. This includes staying home as much as possible, staying 6 feet apart from individuals outside our household, wearing a mask when staying 6 feet apart is not possible, gathering outside, avoiding crowded indoor gathering places such as bars, getting tested if displaying symptoms or after being exposed to a known case, self-quarantining when sick or after exposure to someone with the virus, and coughing or sneezing into the crook of our elbows. We can develop a plan for helping those more at risk for serious symptoms. These are standard recommendations culled from many sources. They are helpful for giving us some sense of control.

Many of us have an unhealthy tendency to avoid or distract ourselves from difficulties. During the pandemic, many people are dismissing the virus as a reaction to cognitive dissonance. These responses are not helpful. Our lives have changed. The sooner we really internalize this, the better our response. 

It will be vital for us to have accurate, current information without information overload or bias. I spend some time every day seeking out information from reputable scientists through reputable news organizations. There is a point, though, where I draw a line. I’ve basically stopped looking at all social media. I am also not paying much attention to politicians or sites with political leanings at this point either – they have too much personal stake in spinning what’s happening.

All of this is going to provoke various reactions, including many different emotions such as anxiety, sadness, and anger. Very little attention in the mainstream media has been devoted to how individuals are coping, and maybe this is part of the reason why our country has done so poorly at controlling the virus. Again, seeking to entirely avoid or distract ourselves from stress and negative emotions often creates its own problems, as is the case when individuals engage in addictive behaviors to feel better.

It will be important for us to have some strategies that allow us to work through our emotions about all this. Some research-supported practices we might implement include exercise, prayer, meditation, journaling, and talking with a friend or mental health provider. Not only do these strategies generally improve our emotional health, they also promote better immune system functioning.

As I’ve said, this is a new situation, and part of what is disorienting is we don’t know what we are going to do. Assuming the pandemic lasts for a while, and that we are going to be spending more time at home, without as many social interactions, it may be a good time to re-vision our daily life. How are we going to stay connected to family, friends, colleagues, and communities in which we are a part? What do we want to do with our increased time at home? Are there any new opportunities? What are we going to want to do when we start getting bored or feeling isolated? How are we going to take care of ourselves and our loved ones? How are we going to carry on in our work, parenting, and other responsibilities? Writing some thoughts about these kinds of questions may bring some clarity. 

Finally, although this can be difficult, it will be helpful to trust. Trust yourself. Trust your body. Trust the people around you. Trust that leaders will make good decisions (and that, if they don't, other leaders will step up to do so). Trust the health care system. Trust that, no matter what happens, you’ll be alright. Trust that this season of pandemic will come to an end.

Because it eventually will.

And, when we look back decades from now, what is the story we'll want to tell? Were we part of the problem or part of the solution?