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Calm in the time of coronavirus: How to cope with our collective fear

March 15, 2020
By Tobey Mandel, PhD, Psychologist

By now, most of us have heard, if not been inundated with news, about the most recent coronavirus. Every time we click refresh, turn on our televisions, or chat with neighbours it seems to come up. Though updates on this virus are useful in the sense that we want to be aware of potential risks so that we can take reasonable precautions (hand washing, using your elbow to cough, minimizing social gatherings etc.), the amount of fear that these issues create is a (mental) health risk of its own.

Why do these issues create such fear?

The main variable that leads to panic is a fearful response to the unknown. Typically, as humans, we like to feel in control (we’ve even written two blog posts about this very issue, see below!), and public health scares offer us a big dose of uncertainty. Ironically, much of our life is uncertain, however we often develop ways to ignore that fact to give ourselves the illusion of control in everyday life. The news about coronavirus, however, has served as a painful reminder that life is uncertain and that is something that freaks us out. This freak out is understandable, but becomes an issue when it starts to interfere with our well-being, our ability to participate in our daily lives, and leads to a constant preoccupation with our safety.

How to better cope?

  • Reduce media consumption
    • Media is created to keep your attention first and provide important information second. Constantly checking the news for updates does not decrease your risk of contracting a disease nor does it add additional information regarding your ability to keep yourself safe. However, it does serve to keep your mind super preoccupied in an unhelpful way. Try to minimize your use of media during this time, and if you need updates about coronavirus stick to reputable sites that focus on facts (such as government websites) without any alternate goal of marketing themselves.
  • Ask yourself: Probable versus possible?
    • When we’re in a highly anxious state, our minds tend to get stuck in what we call ‘thinking traps’. One of these is conflating something that is possible with the likelihood that it is probable. Many, many things are possible, however that does not make them very likely to occur. Once you identify your core fear, you can evaluate whether your mind is tricking you into believing that something possible is now suddenly probable.
  • Remind yourself: I can cope!
    • Anxiety loves to inflate the sense of risk and deflate our sense of coping. Though we cannot control everything, reminding ourselves that we do have many coping skills to manage even some of our most fearful scenarios can help us recalibrate the degree of fear that we experience. In this case, it may involve focusing on how to spend less time with others face to face but more time through video, learning ways to remind yourself not to touch your face, or having an alarm on your phone to remind you to wash your hands. In addition, it’s helpful to remember that many, many steps have to occur before our worst case scenario could ever arise. As such, there are many opportunities for different kinds of coping to occur during each stage.
  • Mindfulness
    • Challenging our thoughts and emphasizing our ability to cope is often enough, but sometimes our same anxious thoughts just keep coming around regardless of how well we’ve addressed them. In these cases, it is helpful to focus on a mindfulness practice that helps to develop an observing stance of our thoughts. This way, we are less likely to become glued to our fearful thoughts and therefore less likely to feel as disturbed by them.
  • Combat loneliness: Find ways to stay connected, even if you are physically apart
    • Another aspect to keep in mind is that as changes may occur in our day to day living for a period, such as less flexibility in our travel plans, preventative quarantine, etc., we also want to be mindful of combating loneliness. We are accustomed to engaging socially as often as we please, and having those parameters change can feel isolating. As such, in order to keep our mental health in check, it’s important to have a plan in mind to keep ourselves connected. Consider making a few extra phone calls to reach out to people you care about and/or use FaceTime or another video platform to sit down and share a meal together. Here is a thoughtful list of other ways that you can stay connected:

We might not be able to control everything in our physical worlds, but we can focus on the above steps to take better care of our mental health.

Previous blogs on coping with uncertainty:

https://connectepsychology.com/en/2019/04/02/the-art-of-not-knowing/

https://connectepsychology.com/en/2016/11/13/the-search-for-certainty/

 

references

Greenberger, D., Padesky, C. A., Beck, A. T. (2015). Mind over mood, second edition: Change    how you feel by changing the way you think (2nd ed.). Guildford Press.

Kim, M. K., Lee, K. S., Kim, B., Choi, T. K., & Lee, S. (2016). Impact of mindfulness-based       cognitive therapy on intolerance of uncertainty in patients with panic disorder. Psychiatry     Investig, 13, 196-202. doi: 10.4306/pi.2016.13.2.196

Mushtag, R., Shoib, S., Shah, T., & Mushtaq, S. (2014). Relationship between loneliness, psychiatric disorders and physical health? A review on the psychological aspects of     loneliness. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, 8, WE01–WE04. doi:  10.7860/JCDR/2014/10077.4828

Torbit, L., & Laposa, J. M. (2016). Group CBT for GAD: The role of change in intolerance of     uncertainty in treatment outcomes. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy9, 356 368. https://doi.org/10.1521/ijct_2016_09_17

 

 

About the author

Tobey Mandel received her PhD in Clinical Psychology at McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec, and is a psychologist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.
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