Worried and Anxious About the Coronavirus?
Psychologists offer advice on how to cope.
Posted Mar 18, 2020
In the past few weeks, people all over the world have been suffering from fear and uncertainty as the Covid-19 pandemic has brought a wave of anxiety, panic, and unprecedented changes into our daily lives. Avoiding and dealing with the virus is a serious challenge, but the disruption of familiar routines brings its own challenges to our mental health.
Obsessing about the news, dealing with closures of schools, theaters, restaurants, bars, and sports activities, avoiding crowds, watching the illness statistics go up—all of this make us feel stressed, fearful, and disoriented. Years ago, American journalist Alvin Toffler wrote about Future Shock, the tremendous stress that comes with rapid systemic change. Toffler likened the resulting distress to combat fatigue, now known as PTSD (Toffler, 1970). Now we’re experiencing this distress as well as unprecedented fear and uncertainty.
To counterbalance this flood of anxiety and uncertainty, we need sources of stability in our lives. Otherwise, we can be overwhelmed by stress, which does not bring out the best in us. As Stanford neurology researcher Robert Sapolsky (2017) has found, stress puts us into survival mode, fostering aggression and selfishness, which explains the panic buying and hoarding behavior as people deplete the stores of hand sanitizer, paper towels, tissue, toilet paper, and essential food. In one extreme case, the New York Times reported on two brothers in Tennessee who bought up the hand sanitizers from all the stores in the area, accumulating thousands of bottles, then selling them on the Internet for up to $70 a bottle (Nicas, 2020). Chronic and severe stress is bad for us, not only collectively but individually, for stress shuts down our immune system (Sapolsky, 2017) and now is a time when we need it most.
Fortunately, psychologists have found that by practicing mindfulness we can halt the stress reaction and deal more effectively with the challenges we face. Seattle psychologist Meg Van Deusen, author of Stressed in the US, has found that mindfulness relieves our stress, enabling us to develop a “nonjudgmental, compassionate relationship with ourselves” (2019).
When we’re more mindful, we’re more aware of ourselves and how we feel. In his book, Permission to Feel, Yale psychologist Marc Brackett recommends taking a “Meta Moment” when we feel stressed, explaining how simply pausing to take a deep mindful breath cuts through the stress reaction. Pausing helps us recognize how we feel and, research has shown that recognizing and labeling our emotions (“fearful,” “anxious,” “confused”), reduces amygdala reactivity by activating the parts of the brain that deal with language and meaning (Vago, & Silbersweig, 2012). Dr. Brackett then recommends asking ourselves how our “best self” would respond, which will help us make better choices (Brackett, 2019).
So when we’re feeling stressed and anxious about the Coronavirus, we can remember to pause, to become more mindful, then follow these helpful strategies.
- Stay informed by consulting reputable sources of information such as the Centers for Disease Control’s website and helpful prevention guide.
- Stop obsessing about the news and being misled by false information on social media. There’s a lot of rumor and gossip out there. To find out what’s true and what’s false, check out Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s page.
- Remember to be kind to ourselves. Get enough sleep, healthy food, and reasonable exercise. We need to stay away from crowded gyms, but we can still walk around our gardens and get back in touch with nature.
- Practice social distancing. Stay at least 6 feet away from people in public. Avoid crowded places.
- Wash your hands often for 20 seconds with lots of soap and water.
- Say a prayer or positive affirmation when washing hands or at other times. Research has shown that repeating a spiritual word or phrase greatly reduces stress, even the severe stress of PTSD (Bormann et al, 2013).
- Call our doctors if we’re feeling ill and heed their advice.
- If we’ve been getting therapy, stay in touch with our providers. Many therapists are now conducting virtual sessions on the Internet.
- As we shelter in place, there are many things we can do—read a good book, watch a movie, call up an old friend, or visit on Skype, or Facetime, enjoy our favorite music, play a musical instrument, pick up that old hobby we didn’t have time for, practice gratitude, meditate, get in touch with our own source of spiritual support.
By focusing on what we can do during this time, we will be less stressed, better prepared, and have greater peace of mind. Together we will get through it.
This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.
Bormann, J. E., Thorpe, S. R, Wetherell, J. L., Golshan, S., & Lang, A. J. (2013). Meditation-based mantram intervention for veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder: A randomized trial. Psychological Trauma Theory: Research, Practice, and Policy, 5, 259-267.
Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to feel. New York, NY: Celadon Books.
Nicas, J. (2020, Sunday, March 15). ‘Crazy money’ in a pandemic, selling $70 bottles of hand sanitizer. The New York Times, page A1.
Toffler, A. (1970). Future shock. New York, NY: Random House.
Vago, D. R. & Silbersweig, D. A. (2012). Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): A framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6. doi: 10.3389/fnhuum.2012.00296.
Van Deusen, M. (2019, December 9). Quote from personal communication. An earlier version of this information appeared in Dreher, D. (2020). Why loneliness is hazardous to your health, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-personal-renaissance/202001/why-loneliness-is-hazardous-your-health. For more information on dealing with the stress of insecure attachment, see Van Deusen, M. (2019). Stressed in the US: 12 tools to tackle anxiety, loneliness, tech addition, and more. Los Angeles, CA: Story Merchant Books.
Photo: V Peremen. Coronavirus 2019–20 COVID-19 Girl in mask on the street. Stop pandemic and panic 18 March 2020, Wikimedia Commons. https://www.vperemen.com/