Sunday, March 15, 2020

Dealing With the Panic of the Coronavirus: Here's What to do if You're Scared

Freaking out over the coronavirus? Are people you care about freaking out over the coronavirus? Read on. I’ve dug through as much of the reliable information I can find, distilled it down, and made this simple guide to help keep all of us sane.

Over the next month or three, we’re going to experience something none of us have probably experienced in our lifetimes. We’re under threat from something we can’t see or stop, which can be terrifying. But we have a really good idea of how we can all survive this, but it requires all of us to play a part. This is our opportunity for all of us to come together to overcome. 

All of this information is based on some basic principles of psychology, which I’ve taught for twenty years. I’m not an expert at any of this, so I’ve included some links to sources from people smarter than me.

First, let's talk about mindset. The absolute best thing you can do for yourself personally and for those around you is to adopt what psychologists call a “survivor's mindset”, which ALL of us possess. How do I know you possess this? Because you, me, and all people alive today have come from a very long line of ancestors who had the mental fortitude to survive far worse situations and conditions that we’re currently facing or will face in the near future. You have a survivor’s mindset etched in your DNA. NEVER forget that. What does this mindset involve?

  • Don’t panic. Yes, fear and anxiety are involuntary. It’s part of our fight or flight mechanism that reacts to perceived danger. WHAT YOU’RE EXPERIENCING RIGHT NOW IS PERFECTLY NORMAL. We’re designed to react like this. If you need help with this one, I have an entire section dedicated to alleviating the fear in the fourth section of this post. 
  • Adopt a “never give up” attitude, and reinforce it with a mantra. As silly as it seems, simply repeating a positive statement repeatedly does wonders to dramatically improve your mindset. I personally just use the same mantra I used when running long races in the mountains: “I’m going to get through this” or “I’ve overcome tougher shit!” It really does work. It’s all about confidence and believing in yourself. Need inspiration? Listen to Jimmy V’s speech from years ago. Want something a little more intense to fire you up? This is one of my favorites
  • Accept that you’re going to get the virus eventually. This one is scary, but accepting it really helps alleviate a lot of anxiety. We don’t have a cure or a vaccine… yet. Because of that, experts believe 40-70% of the population will eventually contract the virus, and the vast majority will be perfectly fine. Many will have such mild symptoms, they won’t even know they’re sick. It’s even possible a lot of us may have already had the virus. This is good news, though. The more of us who get it and fully recover and develop immunity, the slower the virus will spread. 
  • Accept that you’re going to see some strange occurrences in the next few weeks. We don’t have a script for this, but that’s okay. We’re all far more adaptable and far better at creative problem-solving than we sometimes believe. 

Second, let’s go over everything we currently know about the virus. Knowledge is power, and we have some pretty decent knowledge at this point.

  • We know the virus is spread by close proximity to others through droplets expelled when coughing or sneezing, OR by physical contact. This is the reason health officials are recommending the social distancing measures - it’ll slow the transmission of the virus. This article and graphics provide an excellent explanation of HOW and WHY social distancing and quarantines work. Read it
  • We know the virus produces little to no symptoms in many of the people who contract it, especially the young. This is important for two reasons. First, it highlights the fact that we’ll likely be fine if we contract the virus ourselves. Second, it highlights the need to stay away from others even if you don’t develop any symptoms of the virus. This also means the virus has probably spread MUCH farther and MUCH faster than the number of confirmed cases indicates, because people experiencing mild symptoms are NOT being tested in the US right now. 
  • We know the most common symptoms are similar to a cold or mild flu - coughing, fever, and shortness of breath. The illness gets serious when the symptoms move from the upper respiratory system to the lower respiratory system and people develop pneumonia symptoms. Right now, the development of those symptoms seem to be pretty rare unless someone is over the age of 60 or have underlying heart or lung problems. 
  • Find out new and emerging information from these sites: The CDC, The WHO, the LA County Health Department
  • AVOID the media for accurate information. The media makes money by selling advertisements, so their first goal is to always get eyeballs on whatever they’re producing. Because of this, the media tends to be rather sensationalist, which tends to make fear and anxiety worse. This is especially true of ANY highly-biased, partisan sources. So avoid getting your information from the CNNs, the Fox News’, and the CNBC’s of the world. Stick to more neutral sources, like PBS, the BBC, Reuters, the AP, and NPR.

Third, what can you do to keep yourself and those you care about safe? What practical, actionable steps can you take to do your part?

  • Keep social interactions to a minimum. Every time you’re in close proximity to or touching another person, you’re possibly transmitting the virus. Either you’re giving it to them or they’re giving it to you. Just keep your distance from others for a while. Avoid crowds, bars, restaurants, airplanes, and any other place where a number of people congregate. 
  • Wash your hands. A lot. For twenty seconds. Use soap. No, it doesn’t have to be anti-bacterial (this is a virus.)
  • Take care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Get plenty of sleep, get exercise, and eat a well-balanced diet. Quit smoking or vaping. 
  • If you show any of the symptoms, STAY AWAY FROM OTHERS! Self-quarantine to help slow the spread. 
  • Persevere with patience and persistence. We’ll be in this situation for quite some time. Attack each day calmly and with a purpose.
  • Do what you can to help your community, your “tribes”, and your loved ones. Helping others will help all of us get through this. Helping others will also help give you a PURPOSE to focus on for the few weeks and months. Seek out opportunities to volunteer locally. If you have leadership qualities, assume that role because we need leadership right now
  • Don’t horde. One of the biggest problems that is emerging is people’s hoarding behaviors, which seems a bit illogical but can be explained pretty easily (here’s why we’re hoarding toilet paper.) First, you should be avoiding public places at this point. Second, there are a lot of people who could not, because of finances, buy enough supplies this last week. Maybe they’re waiting for payday, or maybe EBT. The shelves WILL be re-stocked. Once you have enough supplies, don’t keep stockpiling. 
  • Have fun. This one’s important. This is something most of us have never experienced before, and the fear and uncertainty is unnerving. One of the absolute best ways to keep a positive mindset is to simply do things you enjoy. Spend time with your kids. Read a book. Watch Talladega Nights

Fourth, how can you keep the fear at bay? Anxiety is a bitch, and this event causes all kinds of fear and panic. But there are simple, actionable steps you can take, including: 

  • Accept the uncertainty of the situation. This is hard, but accepting that we won’t know what’s happening tomorrow BUT you will keep surviving and thriving goes a long way towards overcoming the fear of that unknown. You’ve faced countless hardships in your life and you’ve survived those. You’ve proven you’re a survivor, and you’ll use those past experiences and the survival tools you’ve developed to conquer whatever tomorrow brings. 
  • Maintain a routine. Us humans like being in ruts. We like knowing what comes next. When there’s a great deal of uncertainty, developing a personal routine does wonders for your mental health. As an example, since I’m home with all three of our kids, I’m making a routine we’ll follow every day involving some exercise, reading time, family game time, and eating a meal together, all at very specific times. That predictable (maybe even boring) routine gives us the structure we crave.
  • Face anxiety when it pops up. When we have a fear response, we have a natural tendency to seek out information to get a better picture of the danger. When we start feeling fear about the spread of the virus, we have an urge to watch the news, peruse social media, or even seek reassurances from our friends, family, and medical professionals. THIS IS NORMAL. And we should avoid all of it as it just causes anxiety to build. Instead, turn off your electronics. Sit in a quiet place. Close your eyes, Breathe in for a count of five. Hold it for five seconds, then slowly breathe out to a count of five. While you’re doing this, focus on how your body feels. Notice the changes the anxiety is making, like speeding up your heart, making your palms sweat, and so on. Then notice how the breathing causes those feelings to fade away. This is effective because the reduction in oxygen signals your brain’s fight or flight mechanism to turn off, thus calming that fear. Repeat as often as needed.
  • Block the excessively negative or conspiracy theorists on social media. Or just quit social media for a bit. Anxiety grows in negative feedback loops, and social media can get *really* negative. If you’re prone to anxiety, it’s only going to make the anxiety worse. For example, if you’re friends with some Canadian dude named Jacques and he’s stressing you out, it’s okay to mute him for a bit. He won’t be offended. :-)
  • When existential dread sets in and we start worrying that we could die, focus on a positive life purpose. The harsh reality is some people are going to die from this virus. The odds of it being YOU are extremely remote. Still, that fear of death is real. Adopting the aforementioned survivor’s mindset helps a lot. Finding a PURPOSE also helps a lot, especially if that purpose involves helping others survive and thrive through this pandemic. 
  • Don’t overestimate the threat. Right now, the fatality rate of the virus appears to be between 1-3% of the people who test positive. Understand a lot of people have likely caught the virus, experienced little or no symptoms, and fully recovered without being tested. The actual chances of dying from complications from the virus are likely MUCH lower. In addition, our healthcare system in the US is exceptionally-well prepared to handle these kinds of respiratory illness, as long as the system doesn’t get overwhelmed. This is why social distancing is so very, very important. 
  • Seek professional help if needed. Professional therapists and modern therapies (like cognitive-behavioral therapy) are excellent at helping treat anxiety. Don’t be afraid to seek out that help if the fear becomes too overwhelming. 

There you have it. As of right now, these are all my recommendations to help all of us get through this. It’s not going to be easy, but I know we’re up for the challenge. 

If anyone reading this would like to reach out with questions or concerns, feel free to email me at

Take care of yourself. And take care of each other.

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