We are facing a global pandemic. This is scary for many reasons: there’s the proximal reason that a pandemic disease is upon us and many people will suffer and die; and there’s the downstream reason that life as we know it in many parts of the world has ground to a nearly-complete halt. For those of us who have lived relatively peaceful and stable lives (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you probably have), the current state of the world violently challenges our sense of stability and control.
Over the last few weeks, I have been trying to deal with my own feelings (first handle, then manage, then understand), as well as those feelings around me. I want to share with you what I’ve understood, and what I’m thinking about.
This essay is broken into three sections. First, in Part I, I lay out some of the problematic patterns I’ve observed (in myself and others) in response to this pandemic. In Part II, I discuss several of the feelings I believe are at play. And in Part III, I give my suggestions for how to think about and act on things in a way that may help us to weather the chaos in a way that is most physically and psychologically healthy.
I. The Problematic Response Patterns
I think there are several problematic “patterns” of responses to this crisis, which I’ve outlined below. Some of these patterns might encapsulate someone’s response entirely. Others might describe only part of someone’s response, or it might describe their response at one stage in the crisis, but not another. I lay these out to just help to break down the details of what we are all likely feeling, and to help us to understand where everyone’s feelings could be coming from.
The Private Panicker
“I’m afraid, and I must do what it takes to survive above all else.”
This is what drives that urge to stockpile food, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, etc. This is driven purely by fear, sometimes masquerading as pragmatism. There is also likely an element of selfishness here, as this pattern values its own well-being over that of the community; but of course that’s normal. I have felt this pattern in my desire to buy goods, but my cooler head has prevailed, as I’ve just ensured I have enough to be okay for a 2–3 week quarantine, should I get sick. The Private Panickers are stockpiling as a way to assert some semblance of control over their conditions. It is an ineffective strategy. Yes, you should have enough resources to survive if you need to be home-bound for 3 weeks, but your ability to control the situation is not directly correlated with how much toilet paper you stockpile.
The Public Panicker
“I’m afraid, and others need to know it.”
This is part of what drives us to talk to anyone who will listen about how nervous we are, and what drives us to try to convince others to be as afraid as we are. This definitely has been present for me, especially at the beginning when I was afraid I was overreacting. This is tied to the very human desire to make your problem everyone else’s problem, because you feel unable to handle it alone. Misery does love company, and it really sucks to panic alone. This pattern may start going away, as everyone starts to get on the same page about what we’re facing.
“I’m afraid, and I don’t know what to do.”
First, this may cause silent internal panic. We’ve all had these moments. It’s okay. This then drives us to look to others for guidance on what to do. In these times, we especially want to look to an authority figure or precedent for what to do. This is why it was especially unnerving in the early days of this outbreak for authority figures (e.g., governments) to have no information. (And it continues to be unnerving when our governments continue to withhold information or minimize things.)
“Everything will be okay.”
You’ve gotten through a lot of tough stuff in your life with this mantra. How could this be different? It’s way too scary for this pattern to think that everything won’t be okay, and so they bury their heads in the sand and go about their lives. They avoid reading the news, stay out of conversations about coronavirus, and they try their best not to think about it. This is an avoidance and/or denial tactic, and people justify it with “well, there’s nothing I can do.” (That’s wrong! See Section III below.)
“This is no more dangerous than the flu. Why is everyone freaking out?”
There are two reasons this pattern may exist: (1) You genuinely believe this to be true and you’re not concerned, despite the flood of credible sources telling you to be concerned, and despite the data to the contrary. If this is you, I challenge you to truly consider why you feel this way. Does it make you feel powerful to be contrarian? Do you like believing you’re smarter than everyone else? Do you feel “cool” mocking people who are worrying? Are you actually in denial? Do you regularly challenge authority, just for the sake of it? Whichever of these is the case, please consider that you are applying a filter to the truth; a filter that is based on your own tendencies and needs for creating psychological safety. You are not grounded in reality, and I encourage you to push beyond your cognitive biases. (2) You are uninformed. If this is you, please get informed. These are two resources I can recommend: Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now and Don’t Panic: The comprehensive Ars Technica guide to the coronavirus.
“This is a conspiracy, and I’m furious that you’re all falling for this.”
If you’re reading this, this probably isn’t you. But maybe you know people like this. I hate to say it, but these people perhaps cannot be reasoned with or reached. They likely have some deep-seated problems with authority as well as conspiratorial tendencies. This is a completely different issue to tackle, but I like thinking about where the line is between healthy skepticism about the world around us and straight-up conspiracy theorizing; I’m not sure. But I think these people might often feel disempowered and socially weak, and so they invent their own superiority by embracing highly contrary views and convincing themselves they are smarter than everyone else. They tell themselves (and anyone who will listen) that the disempowerment they regularly feel is actually reversed, and that they are the ones in the know. They certainly will never reveal any vulnerability whatsoever (e.g., admitting they’re afraid) because they feel that would only increase their feelings of disempowerment. I think this probably develops from childhood traumas and ongoing trauma in their lives. Certainly, mental health will play a part as well. Your best bet is to keep these people at arm’s length — both physically and emotionally — to keep yourself healthy and sane.
II. The Feelings
Now that I’ve outlined some of the patterns I’ve observed, here are the feelings that I’ve been feeling myself and observing in others, and which I believe are underpinning most of the patterns above. In calling these out, I also try to describe the feelings and provide some thoughts on how to exist with these feelings more comfortably. But in laying these out, I want to emphasize that these feelings are normal. We have nothing to be ashamed of for feeling these. And the simple act of acknowledging these feelings takes away some of their power.
1. Loss of control and powerlessness
I think this one underpins all the others, and it really hits home for me. One value that I’ve personally come to embrace in recent years is radical self-reliance. I believe that, as long as I have my cup and my pack full of goodies, I can take care of myself, and I’ll be okay. I am the creator of my own destiny. This belief has given me great solace at times, and it’s been shaken by what we now face. I have been slapped in the face by the randomness of life and reminded that, no matter how many goodies I keep in my pack, I cannot control everything.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean there’s nothing I can do (see Part III)! There are certainly things I can do (e.g., hand washing and social distancing); but control this I cannot. And that’s okay. It’s delusional to believe we can control everything, and having that delusion makes us much less resilient in the face of events that prove us otherwise (like this one). It’s good for us to accept this loss of control. As it’s said: “Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
2. Fear of the unknown
We are programmed to hate and fear uncertainty (which is why we are also programmed to try to control uncertainty, as above). But here’s a secret: everything is always unknown in our lives — we just do our best to construct stories to convince ourselves that we can predict the future. These stories include “My horoscope says today will be great” or “Studying for this test means I will succeed” or “Earning lots of money will guarantee my happiness” or even “The data show that there will be a locust swarm in 2021.” Some of these stories are better or worse, but they are all stories. (The stories we tell based on data do happen to be the most reliable predictors of the future.) This coronavirus thing is a real unknown, and that’s scary. We simply don’t know what stories to tell in order to make ourselves feel better. You are free to tell your own stories about this. But I think there are really only two ways about this fear. The first is the one that I choose, which is to tell yourself the data-based story. The data propose a couple possible outcomes, and even though it may not be pretty, the certainty of having a story at all gives me some comfort. The other way about this fear is simply to accept the uncertainty. This is some high-level Buddhist mindfulness, but if you’re able to just observe the unknown, examine the feelings, but not feel them… well then you’re pretty powerful. Kudos. But seriously, I recommend mindfulness meditation. Please give this a look.
3. Existential instability
More than just fear of the unknown, this is fear from not knowing about your own personal safety. And this is more than just the question of whether or not you will get sick and be okay. Regarding whether you will get sick, you can look up the statistics on your own; for most of us, those statistics should be relatively reassuring. For those of us who are less reassured, it’s the rest of our jobs to make this better for you by doing the right things (see Part III).
But existential instability is also extending into people’s livelihoods. With the economy shutting down, people are beginning to wonder where their future meals are going to come from. They’re starting to worry how they are going to afford next month’s rent (thankfully, NYC has issued an eviction moratorium). They’re thinking about how they are going to pay their insurance copays or premiums. This is the very concrete side of “fear of the unknown.” If you have this fear, I want you to know that I see you. I know you exist, and I know you are feeling existentially unstable. So many people around you also see you. Please do not be ashamed of these feelings, and let your community know when you are in need.
Because this fear is so concrete, an important way to address it also needs to be concrete. So to address this with a more concrete approach, it is the obligation of all of us to make sure no one falls through the cracks. Food potlucks, direct financial gifts, leaving large tips, charitable donations, etc. I talk more ideas in Part III, but your community must come together around you. To combat your feelings of existential instability, you will need to place your faith in the community. Please communicate with your community to help them help you.
A note on the stock market: If you are feeling existential instability because you’ve lost a lot of money in the stock market, relax. It will recover in time. If you’re reading this and are worried about your losses in the market, you most likely will not need that money anytime too soon (i.e., it’s most likely retirement money). It will recover. You are going to be okay. (Of course, if all your money was in the market, then first, fire your financial adviser; second, it will still recover, and if you can avoid panic-selling, please do that if you don’t need to.)
4. Fear of death
This is the one that underpins so much of human angst, doesn’t it? Well that, and fear of suffering. Grappling with death is a personal struggle we all must engage ourselves. If some of us are choosing not to think about death and have not come to terms with it, then facing this pandemic is going to be very destabilizing, as we are forced to face death directly. Death is one of those things we need to tell a story about, because it’s the great unknown (see #2 above). Many tell stories about a paradise in the sky; others tell stories about an alternate parallel existence where we float around as creepy apparitions; still others tell stories about being re-embodied as other organisms. Personally, the story I tell myself is that nothing happens. You’re just gone forever. And that’s a scary one, I know it. But the certainty I feel around that story gives me some comfort, and it helps me live a better life. I admit that I handle the scary bit of that through some avoidance and some acceptance. It also doesn’t change the fact that I’m not much interested in dying, since life is such a beautiful thing. But death is as much a part of life as living is, and if it has to come, it has to come. It’s not my preference, but we don’t always get what we want, right? At least that’s how I try to think about it.
The other side of fearing death is fearing not our own deaths, but those of loved ones. For us, that’s really a fear of loss and change. I don’t have an easy solution for that one, other than focusing on my loved one’s feelings toward death. If a loved one has a story they tell themselves about death that works for them, then it makes me a lot more comfortable with their death myself.
And lastly on this topic, and maybe most importantly, coronavirus isn’t going to wipe out the human race. In fact, chances are that most of us will not die. Indeed, even among vulnerable populations, the vast majority of people with COVID-19 will survive it. And if we all do the right things as a community, we can improve the chances for everyone to survive. (Note that death is not the only negative long-term impact of COVID-19; even surviving it can result in long-term complications, and we should not be acting like healthy and young people have nothing to worry about. But similarly, by doing the right things, we can also improve everyone’s chances for minimizing negative outcomes of any kind.) So let’s improve our chances, shall we? On to Part III…
III. How to Cope?
Firstly, here’s what you cannot do: pretend this isn’t real. If we lived in a world where your decision to be an “Ostrich” or “Minimizer” impacted only yourself, that would be one thing. But in this case, our individual choices impact the entire community. So it’s important for us to come to terms with the situation. So here are some things I recommend for coping, which I am trying to do myself.
1. Embrace facts
Knowledge is power, and information fights fear (particularly fear of the unknown). Understand the facts. Accept the facts. Prepare emotionally for the worst, but have hope for and feel empowered to effect the best*. This is what we all need to strive for.
Speaking of facts, check them. If it’s not from a credible news source, assume it’s a rumor and that it’s false. Credible sources and stories will link back to CDC, WHO, or another government agency or credible news source (e.g., Associated Press). Also be generally wary of any news story that refers to only one scientific paper that hasn’t been peer reviewed yet. Additionally, non-credible sources will link to places like some random publication in China, or to Dr. Galaxy Smith’s All-Natural Emporium for Magical Tinctures and Cancer treatments blog (not a real blog; not a real doctor). Oh also, don’t trust any publication owned by Rupert Murdoch (including the New York Post)… like, ever.
You need to preserve your emotional and psychological strength. This is going to be a marathon, and you need to pace yourself.
And speaking of accepting the facts, there are a lot of really terrible facts that are going to make you angry or upset or dismayed. A lot of them are going to be political facts about what was/wasn’t done or communicated. Please do yourself a favor and accept the past and focus on dealing with the situation at hand. I also encourage you to look forward politically and petition your political leaders for immediate change, and also to impact the November election if that’s important to you. But do not dwell on the past with this thing. You need to preserve your emotional and psychological strength. This is going to be a marathon, and you need to pace yourself.
2. Know and do the right things
So how do we *“effect the best”? Maybe you’ve heard it, maybe you haven’t, but we need to “flatten the curve.” This basically means ensuring we don’t all get COVID-19 at the same time so that we can give our healthcare system the chance to treat everyone thoroughly. High level, this means not leaving the house if you are sick, washing your hands, not touching your face, and limiting your social contacts (i.e., social distancing). An MPH named Julie McMurry has a great list of dos and don’ts that I recommend.
A note on social distancing: Many people are wondering “Should I stay at home and avoid all human interaction? Is it okay to hang out with a couple friends?” This is going to be a somewhat personal decision, and we’re going to need to put on our big-boy pants here to decide for ourselves. At the extreme, if you stayed home and never socialized for the next 3 months, yes, that would help fight the spread of the virus more than if you left the house, and you have no chance of spreading the thing. But you also might be miserable and extremely mentally unwell if you did that. You need to understand your own capabilities and act accordingly. Personally, I think I’m comfortable cutting back on my in-person social contact quite a bit, and I intend to limit my in-person socializing overall, and particularly with more than one or two people at a time. If you feel you will be putting yourself in psychological danger completely cutting yourself off, then give yourself a break. But also be smart when doing it. Know that your transit to and from places is prime time for contamination. Consider driving (if you have a car), biking, walking, or even taking an uncrowded bus (instead of a subway).
By doing the right things to flatten the curve, we are all individually (and collectively) empowering ourselves and fighting back fear.
Now, this item of “doing the right things” is extremely important, because doing directly counteracts our feelings of powerlessness that this crisis is producing in us. And now that we know what to do (e.g., not panic-buying toilet paper — seriously people, stop with the toilet paper), we can feel empowered to do and do good for our communities and the entire human race. By doing the right things to flatten the curve, we are all individually (and collectively) empowering ourselves and fighting back our own fear. You should feel good about that.
3. Don’t overdo it on facts
By now, you should know about as much as there is to know, or at least as much as you need to know (particularly after finishing this essay!). So allocate 60 minutes per day (or less) of reading coronavirus news, and then give it a rest. This will be hard. But again, if you are doing the right things, there aren’t going to be any earth-shattering developments that need your immediate attention until tomorrow. After your physical health and the community’s physical health, you need to take care of your mental health.
4. Take care of yourself:
- Be smart with your consumption of media. Know your limits, and stick to them.
- Get lots of sleep.
- Meditate. Seriously, give mindfulness meditation a shot. Everyone can meditate. Just accept your mind wherever it’s at. No one’s brain is too busy to meditate. You can start here.
- Get into nature. If you live in a city and have the means, find a way to safely and responsibly get out of the city. The permanence of nature in the midst of our human chaos is very grounding. Even getting to a park is worthwhile.
- Exercise. Get that blood flowing. (Unfortunately, it’s probably best to stay out of your local public gym for now.) Get creative, like taking the stairs, or trying the 7-minute workout.
- Breathe! It’s so easy to forget to notice your breathing. Incorporate breathing exercises into your life. You can find several ideas here. Trust me, breathing is magical.
- Eat properly. The grocery stores still have fresh produce — go buy some. Save the canned goods for when you aren’t able to leave the house.
- Develop a routine and stick to it. Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day. Try to schedule your social time. Try to schedule reading time. Cook for yourself.
- Pick up an art habit. Got paper and a pen? Great. Start drawing. Just let your hand go, and see what you get.
- Music is magic. Listen to music. Make music. Bang on some pots and pans. Sing along to your guilty pleasures.
- Socialize. Be in touch with all your loved ones, and maybe even some people you don’t know well yet!
5. Take care of others:
- D̶o̶n̶’̶t̶ ̶b̶e̶ ̶a̶ ̶j̶e̶r̶k̶.̶ Be kind: Do not mock or minimize people’s feelings or fears about what’s going on. Be kind, empathetic, and open minded. Everyone has a different experience, and your feelings are no more legitimate than someone else’s. Try to imagine how you would feel if someone mocked you in your time of emotional distress. Generally, please try to adopt a kind and gentle disposition. You don’t know what someone is going through; let’s all try to act like everyone is going through their worst. And PLEASE, enough with the coronavirus jokes. I know humor and levity are important, but so many people are worried about this thing, and joking about it is extremely dismissive to those who are concerned. Please joke about literally anything else (without being a jerk).
- Don’t be racist: This is not a “foreign disease.” Everyone can get it equally. Treat everyone the same (i.e., as someone who could potentially transmit this). Do not be a jerk to anyone for any reason, and especially not because of their race, age, gender, sex, nationality, religion, etc., etc.
- Communicate: Tell others about what you’re feeling and what you need in order to feel good and/or safe. If you live with someone, you have got to get on the same page about how you are dealing with this thing so that you all feel like you’re taking care of each other and able to take care of yourself in your own home. Be honest and kind. Reach out to loved ones to let them know when you are in need, and ask them the same.
- Be in touch: Check in on everyone you can — individually (i.e., not a Facebook post saying “hope everyone is okay). If you know some people to be struggling, put them on a list of people to check in on. On the flip side, let people know you’re okay, so they don’t need to worry.
- Use technology: Oh man, technology is so good. Text your fam. Schedule regular group video chats. Watch a movie over video with some friends (it takes a minute to sync things up, but it works). Video chat in the shower (unorthodox, I know, but find a place to perch the phone so that you don’t feel exposed, and then have at it). Create Slack channels. Send memes. Co-work on video. Play “Words with Friends” while on video. Use Facebook for actually connecting with people (rather than just endlessly scrolling and liking). Etc.
- Get to know your neighbors/community: This is a tough one given social distancing, but we are going to need ways to communicate with our neighbors if people are in need. I suggest joining NextDoor.com, and putting up signs in your building or area recommending people do the same. Then, if someone needs food or resources, they can let everyone know. You could also set up a Google email group for people to join to communicate about their needs. Maybe a good old fashioned phone tree. Get creative!
- Be generous: You’re probably going to be spending less money now that you’re staying at home more. If you have the means (e.g., you’re able to continue working remotely), please share some of the money you’re saving with those who aren’t getting paid. If you do go out, leave a nice tip. Consider buying tickets to local shows that have been canceled. Donate your saved money to charities and food banks. Leave your barber some cash under the door. Again, get creative.
- Be grateful: Give thanks to all the heroes. Obviously, anyone in the healthcare field who is on the front lines, give them a deep bow (6+ feet away) of appreciation. But also the everyday heroes. If someone is self-quarantining because they feel unwell, give them huge thanks. That friend who is choosing to avoid social gatherings because they are trying to flatten the curve? Thank them. This crisis is an opportunity for humans all over to truly shine. Whenever you see someone shining, give them a big shout-out (from 6+ feet away).
6. Feel empowered:
This last bit is important, because it fights back the fears in Part II. There is a lot about the current situation that is out of each of our individual hands. And yet so much of it is in our collective hands! The key to collectivism is everyone (not just most — everyone) doing their part. Yes, as individuals, we have to be able to sit with the idea that things are out of our control. (Again, big plug for mindfulness meditation.) But as a collective, we are able to assert some semblance of control! You, yes you, can help slow the spread of this virus and improve the outcomes for the human race!
Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. And do the right things.