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How to Cope During Unsettling Times

5 ways to find peace in the midst of uncertainty.

As the coronavirus spreads throughout the world, each of our lives has changed in ways we could never have imagined. For many, a steady paycheck has evaporated. Hospitals and health care workers on the front lines are overwhelmed. Parents frantically juggle their new work-from-home jobs while caring for their out-of-school children.

The biggest elephant in the room, of course, is that no one knows the size of the crater—medically, socially, financially—the virus will leave in each of our lives. It’s no wonder so many of us feel anxious right now. How do we find comfort in a world that feels so uncertain?

First, rest assured that in times like these, an increased level of anxiety is normal. When the headlines sound suspiciously similar to the plot of Contagion or bring to mind visions of Wall-E sorting through post-apocalyptic garbage, it’s natural to feel freaked.

But before you move to an underground bunker or board up your windows, let’s cover five ways to feel better when the world makes you feel a jumble of negative emotions.

1. Feel what you feel.

Somewhere between fake-smiling and utter despair lies a third way: Acknowledge what you feel and channel it into action. To paraphrase Mister Rogers, any emotion—alarm, anger, anxiety, sadness, or fear—is both “mentionable and manageable.” The key is to do both—mention and manage.

Therefore, honor your feelings. Then allow them to turn you both inward—towards gratitude for what you have—and outward—towards contributing, sharing, and supporting where you can. Which brings us to the second tip...

2. And let your feelings move you to help.

Let’s take sadness. It’s perfectly normal to shed a tear at photos of refrigerated trucks parked outside New York hospitals or stories of patients barred from receiving visitors. The silver lining is that sadness is the most clear-headed emotion. It’s been found to confer generosity and make us more polite, two humane things in a world that needs all the humanity it can get right now.

Likewise, with anger: Feel it and then use its power for good. Anger naturally spurs you to act. So rage at the injustice of it all. But then do something. Anger drives people to vote, to fill in the gaps where things fall short, and otherwise bridge the gap between doing nothing and doing something.

No matter your emotion, harness that power. Turn emotion into action. Give of your time, energy, and money while keeping yourself safe. Team up with a food bank to deliver meals to vulnerable people in your community or check on older neighbors with a chat through the door. If you’re fortunate enough to still be receiving a paycheck, donate to a reputable non-profit or generously tip anyone delivering anything to your doorstep. Indeed, action can help stave off the hopelessness and helplessness that sometimes pairs with strong emotion.

In short, rather than trying to stop the wave of emotion or resign yourself to drowning in it, do your best to swim with the currents and maybe even hold up someone else.

3. Consume media wisely.

Find a balance between poring over the news all day long and shutting out the world. A client at our clinic was overwhelmed with fear during his recent online therapy session. It turns out he had been keeping a spreadsheet of the number of coronavirus cases in his state. He did it to feel in control and on top of the news, but it was spiking his anxiety to new heights.

In collaboration, we decided he would limit his new consumption to half an hour a day and stop plotting cases on his spreadsheet. The result? He kept up with important announcements but didn’t feel as overwhelmed. The same goes for you. If you feel gutted after scrolling, watching, or listening, consider limiting your time or switching to a less distressing news source.

The same rules apply to social media. A simple way to decide whether you’ve had enough? How do you feel when you log off? If the answer is “worse than when I logged on,” consider limiting your time on the platforms. If the answer is “better than when I logged on”—maybe those TikTok videos prompted your first laugh all day, or that Instagram cartoon totally validated your urge to forgo pants on your next Zoom call—you’re using the platforms as intended.

Alternatively, weigh taking a break from social media altogether. Consider this: A study out of the University of Copenhagen asked half of a group of over 1,000 participants to quit Facebook for a week, while the other half carried on as usual. Those on a Facebook fast reported better life satisfaction and felt more positive emotion, two things we all could use a shot of right now.

4. Search out the good news.

Journalism faces a unique challenge. For news organizations to survive, they have to generate clicks and views to attract advertisers. And in an attention economy, what makes us click more than conflict, divisiveness, and tragedy? Everybody loves a good train wreck.

But as cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker points out in his TED talk, no newspaper ever reported, “137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty yesterday.” No news analyst ever reported live from a city where there was no terrorist attack.

Pinker goes on to make the case that the world is getting better on metrics as diverse as violence, literacy, poverty, and even the probability of being killed by a lightning strike.

Good news doesn’t give us the same adrenaline rush as bad news, but in times like these, tune into outlets that share good news, like Upworthy or the Good News Network, to restore your faith in humanity.

5. Connect with your fellow humans.

A study out of Florida State University examined almost 400 participants and assessed what traits and activities were most related to two things everyone needs at this moment: happiness and meaning. What yielded both? High-quality social relationships.

There were nuances: Seeing friends was linked more strongly to happiness than meaning while spending time with family—like taking care of children—was meaningful but not necessarily happy. But overall, connecting with others is key to finding comfort and purpose in the shadow of today’s headlines. I guess that company is actually the antidote for misery.

But fear not! You don’t need to grit your teeth through the ubiquitous video chatting happy hour. In fact, you don’t need to video chat at all. Reach out to those you love and those you’re thinking about with a text, a good old-fashioned phone call, or even an invitation to play Words with Friends. Bonus: If you’ve ever hesitated to reach out to your work buddy from two jobs ago or the college friend you’ve lost touch with, now is the time. What better reason to reconnect than to send well wishes and good health during this crazy point in history?

So to the literally billions in the same boat: Hang in there. Feel what you feel, let it compel you to action, search out good news as a counterweight, take a break when you need it, and, most importantly, reach out to your friends and loved ones. Even when the headlines read like a dystopian novel, remember the story is still rich with heroes and humor and love.

More from Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.
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