By Elisa Epel

This widespread coronavirus anxiety is fueling big changes fast.  We are doing smart things—washing hands, social distancing, staying home. 

But just how anxious should we be? 

There is a sweet spot. 

Panic makes pandemics worse. It stresses our whole interdependent system, from our own body to global health. With the high level of uncertainty and novelty of the situation, our anxious minds very easily overestimate the actual threat, and underestimate our ability to cope with it. But here are five things you can start today to put your mind at ease:

  1. First acknowledge we cannot change the situation, then completely surrender with acceptance of our new reality. We can control our behaviors to lessen the chance of contagion and “flatten the curve,” as they say. This has already been helpful in places like China and it can work for us, too. Label your thoughts and emotions, so you can switch from an emotional mode to a kind and reflective observer mode: “So this is what it feels like to live in a pandemic.” It will help the emotion pass more quickly.
  2. Stick with the facts from reliable sources, such as the CDC, and try to limit media exposure to twice a day max to help others think calmly about it. Announcing headlines as they pop up creates an atmosphere of danger. We automatically transmit panic and distrust to our children and those around us. Instead, try to transmit key safety behavior information (just the facts, buddy).This one’s hard, but being on a media diet is critical right now! I vow to no longer forward (and thus propagate) any extreme views.
  3. Choose where to put your attention. Becoming aware of and present to what you personally are experiencing, labeling the thoughts and emotions you are having, paradoxically allows intense emotions to pass more quickly. Be extra kind to yourself, acknowledging that anxiety right now is normal and almost inevitable, and humans across the world are sharing this experience with you.
  4. Take care of yourself. Exercise more than usual, and go to bed early. Quality sleep enhances immune function. Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn sees this as an opportunity for self expression: “As we stay at home and don’t rush around, we’ll become reflective poets, writers, readers, painters, thinkers and more.” 
  5. Help those you can, however you can. We can check in on people, with caring calls or texts, and help those who are elderly, disabled or are sick, told not to leave home, with food and supplies. Let’s use our social interdependence to fight a good battle!

We always have a choice whether to give in to panic mentality, joining a herd or stampede, or to live well with anxiety, becoming part of the solution. 

That’s not being panic stricken. That’s socially responsible anxiety.