Surviving Social Distancing: Six Ideas about how to Psychologically Get Through COVID-19

  1. Resist the urge to grind an axe. We displace our frustration or anxiety on our favorite pet peeve.  Over the last 48 hours on social media, I have seen posts expressing anger towards minorities (“They started it”), Mormons (“They horde everything”), non-Mormons (“They weren’t prepared”),  Republicans (“They didn’t take it seriously”), and progressives (“They purposely created a panic”).  Our frustrations during a crisis reveal our pre-existing biases, which we use as pretext against each other.  I also have political axes that I could grind, but – for right now – let’s observe the Thanksgiving rule: no references to politics until the crisis is over.  The only thing that spreads faster than COVID-19 is panic, and panic breeds in an atmosphere of hostility and isolation.  We already have the isolation.  Do we really need the hostility?  There will be plenty of time to figure out who did (or did not) do what later.  Let’s not unintentionally make things worse by alienating each other – no matter how right may we think ourselves to be.

  2. Resist the urge to make unnecessary decisions. As a general rule, crises increase impulsivity.  When our emotions are strong, we feel a misdirected sense of urgency.  Humans have a hard time just sitting with their feelings.  Instead, they feel compelled to “do” something.  But a misdirected sense of urgency and a surplus of time to think can be a dangerous combination.  Remember that – in a crisis – less is more.  Tolerating your distress without taking rash action may be the wisest course to pursue.  At the very least, sleep on decisions (e.g., “Should I really invest in hand sanitizer?”) before acting on them.

  3. Watch how much cable news you consume. I believe our impulsivity is directly proportional to how much news we watch.  Yes; I agree.  We need to know what is going on.  But there is a point of diminishing returns.  Set a time limit to how much news you consume – especially if you feel it’s consuming you.  Turn it off and tune in to loved ones who may need your support and connection (see below) – especially if small children are looking to you for comfort and guidance.   

  4. Focus on what you can control. Gently bring your mind back to what you can influence… and be willing to let go of the rest.  (A technique also referred to as mindfulness.)  While I appreciate the maxim to “stay in the present”, my brain doesn’t work that way.  It constantly jumps to the future; a special place I like to call “what-if” land.  When this happens, I non-judgmentally notice what my mind is doing and gently bring it back to the COVID-19 serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (g., my 401k); courage to change the things I can (e.g.,  hand washing, responsible social distancing, not going to work when I’m sick, coughing into a tissue, not shaking hands, not acting like a jerk); and the wisdom to know the difference.”  If we take care of today, tomorrow will take care of itself.

  1. Use this as a time to develop deeper connections with others. Never waste a crisis.  If you’re going to be in crisis, use it to your benefit or the benefit of those you love.   Express appreciation to someone.  Reach out safely to others.  Speak with care.  Regarding caring communication, remember the following formula:
    • Care = honesty – ego + vulnerability*

Let’s use this as a time of increased care and understanding.  As I said before, panic is a more contagious than any virus – and feelings of isolation and hostility are the medium through which panic becomes viral.

  1. Use this as a time to develop deeper connections with yourself. Practice good self-care.  Take a walk.  Meditate on things that give you hope.   Reflect on yourself and others with compassion.  Rediscover things that fill you with faith and gratitude.  A person first has to decide he or she has an opportunity before an opportunity can be utilized.  This could be a time of opportunity.  If this moment passes with hand-wringing but without being used for good, then it was pain without purpose – and that would be even more tragic.

My grandmother was the oldest of many children when the great depression began.  As her parents worked, she raised several children while she was practically a child herself.  Later, her husband went off to fight a war.  We are not facing anything nearly as dire, and the spirit of such a generation lives within us still.  This is only an empty platitude if we believe it to be.  We will survive and possibly thrive through this crisis, if we’ll allow it to pass through us rather than define us.

Bryan Bushman is a clinical psychologist and the author of Becoming Okay (When You’re Not Okay). Read more of his writings at www.drbryanbushman.com or on his blog at https://findingyourway2okay.wordpress.com/home/

*From the work of Mike Robbins

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