Have you found yourself obsessively checking the news feeds on your phone, on the television, and on other sources on the internet lately? Also, with all this news coming your way are you able to remain calm during the COVID-19 crisis? Additionally, have you noticed that each time you view a new scary headline, a current of adrenaline shoots through you?
“The virus is spreading fast…markets are crashing…travel to Europe is suspended…schools are closed..”
If you’re worried, it’s understandable because there is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now. Also, there’s panic in the air and lots of anxious people, even some that are in full freak-out mode.
Fear of the COVID-19 is contagious and spreads from person to person just like a virus.
Fear and panic are contagious, just like a virus. Additionally, anxiety and panic lower our immune system’s response. They also shut down the rational part of your brain, causing you to make decisions that are often not in your best interest. Consequently, fear spreads and inevitably makes the situation, no matter what it is, worse.
In contrast, the presence of a centered, calm, rational person also spreads from person to person. As a result, it inevitably makes the situation better, no matter how bad it is.
Therefore, remaining calm during a crisis is often the greatest gift you can give to yourself, your family, and the community.
So, here’s the big question: Are you spreading fear/panic or calm about COVID-19?
Don’t get me wrong, being afraid when there is a real danger is essential because it can save our lives. However, there is a difference in being appropriately afraid and being stuck in a state of panic. It’s different because panic feeds on itself and causes us to see threats that don’t exist.
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened.” – Mark Twain
Ideally, when new information about our environment shows up, we will have the sense to know when to be afraid, when to be wary and when to feel safe. However, many things can distort or confuse us and cause us to misjudge situations.
Your built-in negativity bias can make you see dangers from COVID-19 that don’t exist.  Margaret Jaworski. The Negativity Bias: Why the Bad Stuff Sticks. PSYCOM.com [website] February 19, 2020, https://www.psycom.net/negativity-bias (accessed March 24, 2020)
An excellent example of something that distorts our perception is what scientists call our negativity bias. What that means is that we are genetically programmed to notice what’s wrong in our environment before we see what is right. Therefore, for most of our existence, this trait has kept us alive by helping us see and avoid dangers that minimized injury and death. However, when we mix this ancient automatic survival strategy with a modern world overloaded by negative messages, that is when the trouble starts.
So, in the modern world, this preference for negative messages becomes a problem because our brain can’t tell the difference between a real threat and one that we see on the news 5000 miles away. Therefore, instead of running into a few threats a day as our ancestors did, we are now running into hundreds every day. That is to say, it would be like our ancestors bumping into a tiger every few minutes all day long.
Our resilience in the face of negative messages (negative stress like news about COVID-19) is determined by three factors.  Sonja Lyubomirsky, Rene Dickerhoof, Julia K. Boehm, and Kennon M. Sheldon. Becoming Happier Takes Both a Will and a Proper Way: An Experimental Longitudinal Intervention to Boost Well-Being. National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health [website]. March 31, 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4380267/ (accessed March 24, 2020)
- Your genetic happiness default – 50% of your stress resilience is factory installed, meaning that you are born with a tendency towards a particular way of processing stress. For people with a family history of depression, for example, the preset is very low. These people will have to work extra hard to stay positive during times of high stress.
- Your environment – 10% of your stress resilience depends on your external environment. This includes your level of education, marital status, etc. 10% may seem a low number to most of us. That is because we tend to think that external forces have a more significant influence on our well-being than they actually do.
- Your choices, habits, and attitudes – 40% of your stress resilience comes from your mental habits and attitudes. Therefore, it is here that you can influence how your body and mind react to stress. Also, there is evidence that with a prolonged effort in this realm, you can improve your genetic happiness default setting.
Given what I just said, the following breakdown of how much positive influences are necessary to stay calm during a crisis will vary significantly from person to person. Additionally, I believe what follows represents a useful model for understanding what is necessary to create a calmer, more self-regulated self during times of crisis.
To illustrate how the modern bombardment of negative messages can affect our health, I’ll show you how the numbers add up.  Roy F. Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, Kathleen D. Vohs. Bad Is Stronger Than Good. Review of General Psychology Vol. 5. No. 4. 323-37, 2001. http://www.seekingbalance.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/BadStrongerThanGood.pdf (accessed March 24, 2020)
- For every negative message you take in, you need 8 positive messages to help you feel neutral about your safety.
- If you want to feel safe and happy, you need around 30 positive messages for every negative message.
OK, so think about how many negative or upsetting messages you have taken in today so far? When the average American spends 60 minutes taking in the news in one form or another, that means the numbers look something like this:
First, let’s assume that there is only one negative message per minute from the news. I think this number is generously small on my part, but it’s a round number, so I’m sticking to it. Therefore, to counteract 60 minutes of negative news, the average American needs 480 positive experiences to feel OK and a total of 1800 to feel safe and happy.
If each positive experience took one minute each, then to counteract the adverse effects of one hour of news, you’d need 8 hours of positive messages to feel just OK. Therefore, If you want to feel safe and happy, you would need 30 hours of positive messages.
Certainly,it is no wonder that stress-related illnesses like depression and hypertension are on the rise!
Most people in the modern world are in debt when it comes to positive, life-affirming messages.
Now, on top of all this, why don’t we add in a worldwide pandemic. This would typically add more than double the number of negative messages that everyone takes in every day.
I think by now, you can see that when the ratio of positive messages to negative messages gets this out of balance, we feel like the sky is falling. As a result of this imbalance, people start acting irrational and see dangers that don’t exist. This is what causes people to buy a 5-year supply of toilet paper during a pandemic.
The remedy to your fear of COVID-19 is to form better habits around what you think about and the quality of the information that you take in.
As you can see from what I’ve outlined above, you would need to focus on what’s going right all the time. This would include being diligent about seeing what is right in your life and the world in general. Because the science clearly shows that people who are resilient in stressful situations continuously focus on what is right, this is what we all must strive for. Also, keep in mind that I’m not asking you to ignore what’s going wrong. Instead, I’m suggesting that you be aware of current facts about the COVID-19 crisis just don’t let it dominate your mind.
How do I stay informed about COVID-19 without it causing me more anxiety and stress?
Step 1 – Limiting your exposure to news about the COVID-19 virus.
My first suggestion for reducing your anxiety about the spread of COVID-19 is to take control of all the ways that you receive negative or upsetting information. I’m talking about both the quality and the number of times a day that you are exposed to. Getting your news from a quality source is essential because misinformation breeds fear and confusion.
- Never watch the news, read it instead. The images and tone of voice of an announcer will be more upsetting than reading and stick longer in your unconscious. In contrast, reading from a quality source where the focus is on the facts will help you make better decisions rather than give you a shot of adrenaline.
- Put a limit on the number of times a day you check the news. Typically, I read the news once a week. During this crisis, I am reviewing the news twice a day at 8 AM and 5 PM for 10 – 15 minutes.
- Delete all news related apps, including Facebook, from your phone and computer or, at the very least, turn off automatic notifications. This way, you will only be exposed to the news when you choose to be.
- Never check the news before you got to bed.
- Only check the news from reputable news sources
- Consider skipping the news agencies altogether and gather the facts yourself from more data-driven sources.
Here are some sources of information about COVID-19 that I believe are trustworthy, unhyped, and fact-driven.
- Chris Kresser
- Ed Yong
- The World Health Organization (WHO)
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
Step 2 – Engage in behaviors during the COVID – 19 crisis that reinforces feelings of calm and safety, and that strengthen rational decision making.
Focus on what you can control instead of what you can’t control
- Wash your hands
- Don’t touch your face
- Improve your life is some way during the crisis
- Look for the opportunities that this new challenge brings. Often in crisis situations, these opportunities will be in the form of a new spiritual perspective on what is most important in your life.
Exercise – Although I will list practices that are scientifically proven to help regulate stress, any form of movement that you find relaxing and pleasurable will help. The positive effect of these activities will be significantly increased if you do them in nature. If you are restricted from going outside or traveling to nature, then your back yard or having a view or picture of nature will do the trick. Also, be careful not to over-exercise. Too much exercise can increase your stress level by wearing you down rather than acting as a support. Aim at 65% of your capacity rather than trying to push your limits. If you have physical limitations moving within your constraints while imagining that you are doing the full movement will have the same benefits to your health. Here are some examples of exercise that tone the body and help reduce the negative effects of stress:
Practice Gratitude – Advances in neuroscience have proven the powerful effects of focusing on what we are grateful for. The key is that this focus becomes a habit that is practiced regularly. If your automatic response is to look for something to be grateful for in every situation then your chance of thriving during times of stress goes way up. The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky and the Science of Well Being, an online course from Yale are two great resources on how to use gratitude to improve the quality of your life
Meditate – Modern neuroscience has shown that mindfulness practices can significantly improve stress resilience and the levels of happiness in people who practice regularly. Here are some excellent resources for quality online meditation instruction:
- The 10 % Happier App – I have used this app for years because of the exceptionally high-quality of the instructors. One of my favorite classes is on how to handle difficult emotions by Oren Sofer. Also, this app is now offering a free 6-month subscription for all health care workers. Healthcare workers can simply email them at [email protected], and they will be sent instructions on how to get access.
- Darma Seed – This is a free resource for quality meditations and classes lead by highly qualified teachers. Some of my favorites are Oren Sofer, Jeff Warren, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Alexus Santos. Please keep in mind that meditation, just like physical exercise, only works if you do it regularly. Also, just like exercise, the positive effects will fade if you stop practicing.
- CALM App – The developers of this app are offering free meditations for sleep, stress reduction, calming exercise videos and much more.
Pray – People who pray and have a belief in a higher power often do better in times of extreme stress. The act of admitting your vulnerability and lack of control to a higher power can engender feelings of connectedness, humility, and gratitude. This shift in attitude helps with stress regulation and better decision making.
Being of service – Being of service to other people in times of need is an excellent way to take to focus off your own troubles and make you feel like you can make a difference in times of high stress. If you’re stuck at home and can’t work consider offering something for free for other people online. You could show people how to bake a cake, draw a picture or improve their memory.
Improve your environment – If you’re stuck at home, optimizing your home environment is a great way to boost our feeling of agency. You will see this improvement every day, and it will remind you that you can make a difference. You have control over something! Here are some examples of home projects that can boost our mood.
- Sort and organize areas of your home that you have to deal with every day. For example, your clothes closet or the kitchen. Get rid of anything you don’t need and organize the remaining items, so they are easy to use and support whatever activity you most need to do in that space.
- Clean your house until it shines – What was the last time our home was immaculate? I’m talking about the level of clean where you won’t be embarrassed if someone showed up unannounced to socialize. Why not doing this same cleaning job for yourself as a loving gift during this challenging time?
- Weed the garden and plant something beautiful. Not only will you be cheered up by a more beautiful garden, but the act of working physically and putting your hands in the earth can be profoundly grounding.
Stay socially connected over Zoom or Skype – Social bonding during times of crisis is one of the most potent ways to boost your mood and improve your immune function. Since connecting in person can cause COVID-19 to spread, I suggest connecting with friends or loved ones through apps that allow you to see their faces as well as hearing their voices. Modern neuroscience has shown that this combination is more effective at engendering feelings of connection and safety than texts or emails.  Steven Porges. How to counter the effects of social distancing. Relational Implicit & Somatic Psychotherapy Youtube Channel, March 17, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FGTHm6R4pc&feature=youtu.be (accessed March 24, 2020)
Play – Many of us don’t realize that play is a potent neuro exercise. It is essential for our health and happiness. For example, children who are deprived of play in the first 10 years of their lives have a high probability of committing violent crimes as adults. In contrast, play can act as a powerful antidote to daily stress as well as in a crisis. Play allows us to get into that zone were time changes, and nothing exists beyond what we are doing at the moment. It’s like a trance, and when we snap out of it, we can’t believe the hours have gone by. Here are some examples of healthy forms of play including some links to free online resources:
- Writing or journaling
- Drawing and painting
- Brain games
- Card games
- Laughter yoga
- Group sports – you can play safely in your back yard with your housemates.
Study and apply spiritual/philosophical principles – Many philosophical approaches help during stressful times. However, my favorites are Buddhism and Stoicism. For example, both of these systems teach that it is more helpful to focus on what you can control instead of what you can’t control. Also, they both encourage viewing humanity with a forgiving heart which includes forgiving yourself for all your perceived failures and shortcomings. If you want to learn more about Stoic philosophy, I recommend How to be a Stoic, by Massimo Pigliucci. For practical advice on how to apply Buddhist principles to your life, I recommend The Art of Living, by Thich Nhat Hanh.
What do I do if my fear of COVID-19 has gotten worse, and nothing is helping me calm down?
If you or someone you love is having trouble coping with the stress of our current health crisis, professional help may be needed. Take a look at the symptoms list below and see if they apply to you or anyone you know.
- Bad dreams or nightmares
- Having trouble falling or staying asleep
- Seeing yourself, others, or the world in a more negative way (for example” I can’t trust people,” “I’m a weak person”)
- Intense negative feelings like fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame
- Losing interest or not participating in activities you used to do
- Feeling distant or cut off from others.
- Having difficulty experiencing positive feelings
- Acting more irritable or aggressive with others
- Taking more risks or doing things that might cause you or others harm (for example, driving recklessly, taking drugs, having unprotected sex)
- Being overly alert or on-guard (for example, checking to see who is around you, being uncomfortable with your back to a door)
- Being jumpy or more easily startled (for example when someone walks up behind you)
- Having trouble concentrating
If you answered strong yes to more than half of the questions on this list, you may be suffering from stress overload. When this happens, you will not be able to relax, rest, or think clearly. Also, the suggestions I’ve made above may not help you feel any better. If this is the case I suggest you take this self-assessment quiz.
If you score between 33 or above on this quiz, I advise you to seek help from a health care professional who is “Trauma-Informed.” What this means is that the health care professional is up to date with modern neuroscience on how to effectively help people who are stuck in an unhealthy stress loop. This is important because many traditional methods of talk therapy and drugs are not effective in helping people stuck in states of overwhelm. In fact, in some cases, talking about what is upsetting can make your condition worse.
If you feel that you are in trouble and could be a danger to yourself or others please seek immediate help. Here are two free resources for people who are in an emotional crisis.
- Crisis Text Line – https://www.crisistextline.org/
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline – https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
If you are constantly flooded with negative thoughts about the COVID-19 crisis and you can’t calm down you may need the help of a therapist.
If you want to find a trauma-informed therapist, I recommend looking for professionals with an educational background that includes one or more of these training/certifications.
- Somatic Experiencing
- Sensory Motor Psychotherapy
- The Body Keeps The Score
- The Treating Traumas Master Series
- The Rhythm of Regulation
- The Safe and Sound Protocol
I hope that this article will help you navigate the uncertain times we are currently experiencing. It is my belief that we can all make a difference in every crisis if we learn how to remain calm and rational. We all have the power to spread hope and calm rather than fear. All that is needed is for each of us to form good habits. These habits help keep our negativity bias at bay and make us healthfully proactive during times of heightened stress.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||(Back to text)||Margaret Jaworski. The Negativity Bias: Why the Bad Stuff Sticks. PSYCOM.com [website] February 19, 2020, https://www.psycom.net/negativity-bias (accessed March 24, 2020)|
|2.||(Back to text)||Sonja Lyubomirsky, Rene Dickerhoof, Julia K. Boehm, and Kennon M. Sheldon. Becoming Happier Takes Both a Will and a Proper Way: An Experimental Longitudinal Intervention to Boost Well-Being. National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health [website]. March 31, 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4380267/ (accessed March 24, 2020)|
|3.||(Back to text)||Roy F. Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, Kathleen D. Vohs. Bad Is Stronger Than Good. Review of General Psychology Vol. 5. No. 4. 323-37, 2001. http://www.seekingbalance.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/BadStrongerThanGood.pdf (accessed March 24, 2020)|
|4.||(Back to text)||Steven Porges. How to counter the effects of social distancing. Relational Implicit & Somatic Psychotherapy Youtube Channel, March 17, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FGTHm6R4pc&feature=youtu.be (accessed March 24, 2020)|