A Few Thoughts on This Whole Pandemic Thing (And Why I’m Actually Not, Surprisingly, Freaking Out Right Now)

I know everyone is a little on edge right now, and that’s understandable. As a person who openly struggles with anxiety, I really do get it. And I want to start this post by acknowledging that I am definitely taking the coronavirus seriously. It needs to be taken seriously, and we have a moral responsibility to do everything we can to slow down the spread of this disease. I truly believe that and am enacting appropriate measures to that end, not just because I don’t want any more people to catch it but also because our health care system needs to have a chance to catch up and not be overwhelmed. Flatten the curve.

However, I am not panicking. And — again — as someone who openly struggles with anxiety —  and in particular with anxiety when it comes to my health — this probably seems just plain weird. But I want to explain why I’m not freaking out right now, and why I think the rest of us shouldn’t freak out, either.

First, I have some thoughts about why there are long lines at grocery stores, why some of their shelves are empty, why several of the people I’ve encountered lately have been running around half-rabid with panic-furrowed faces. You can read umpteen million articles online about the psychology of scarcity (real or perceived) and the fear-contagion effect, and it’s probably a good idea to do so if you tend toward worrying. You can also read plenty of pieces about the real science and facts behind COVID-19 that will probably calm you down; I recommend this too. And if you want a nerdy and fascinating look at why soap and water are super effective against this and other viruses, check out this tweet-thread.

But the main thing I want to remember during this frenetic moment is that we have been here before. Over the last couple of days, a lot of the worst anxiety I’ve encountered has centered around the idea that “nothing like this has ever happened before,” or the also-popular “we’ve just never seen anything like this before.” And while it’s true that we have not in recent memory encountered a global pandemic while also being “led” by anyone quite like this, if we break the current situation down to some fundamental parts, you’ll see we have been through this before — and we came out of it.

Remember other difficult times? For some of you, that might be 9/11. For some, hurricanes or other natural disasters. The older you are, the more frames of reference you have. We came through those, but they freaked us out while they were ongoing. Sometimes transition times are like watching something scary happening in slow-motion. You think you have an idea of how it’s going to end up, but the moment just keeps going and elongates the apprehension. (And in hindsight, that apprehension gets compressed and some of that feeling goes away.)

So yes, we have indeed been through this before, if you break down what we are currently experiencing into two main parts: transition and information overload.

Transition:
*  We are in a moment when things are happening quickly around us. Events are being cancelled, places are closing down, our lives are filled with uncertainty. (For some of us, that profound and existential uncertainty has been going on for a good three years at least. This current situation is only compounding it, which makes everything feel exponentially worse.) All of this may feel disappointing at best and unnerving at worst.
*  That uncertainty about the future can be terrifying. So people go to the grocery store and stock up on things related to things that they feel vulnerable about, like toilet paper. (It doesn’t matter that COVID-19 isn’t a diarrheal illness.) Other people see them panic-buying and do it, too. That’s part of the fear-contagion effect. The thing is, panic-buying gives us the illusion of control over our situation, and then when we can’t do it because the shelves are empty, we have the sense of no control, and that causes panic. (See how this cycle feeds itself? Stop panic-buying, please.)
*  Anytime we go into a period of transition, things can feel unsettled, so we can feel unmoored. But the important thing to remember about transitions is that they are, by nature, temporary. We are moving into a series of new habits — working from home and social-distancing, for example — that will probably start to feel normal-ish, or at least not wildly untethered, once we adapt to them. Humans as a species are eminently adaptable, which often bodes well for us.

Information Overload:
*  Let’s talk about our reliance on being plugged in. If humans are adaptable, we must recognize that our newest generation is a little bit cyborg: our technology has become an extension of our selves. As such, we may feel glued to our screens, and those screens may be popping up with push notifications every few minutes with “updates” telling us every time another case of coronavirus has been confirmed in a region near us.
*  While information can be helpful for many people, this hyper-vigilance might actually do more harm than good, because the subconscious urgency of the word “alert” and the phrase “breaking news” causes us, frankly, to go into freak-out mode. This keeps eyeballs on the news, which in turn enriches the people who advertise on the news. It might be worthwhile to just stay away from broadcast news for a little while.
*  Any time we’re in an evolving situation, “news” is going to come in fast and furious and sometimes incorrect. If we checked on it only once a day (or twice a day, spaced out significantly like in the morning and in the evening — but not at bedtime), we would probably be a little more reliably updated and would probably feel less panicked about it.
*  Seriously, unplug. It helps. Find hobbies that aren’t online. If you already have them, enjoy them. We cancelled our Spring Break trip and are staying home. I’m planning to make some visual art and read some books and am really looking forward to it! I find reading fiction and making art to be therapeutic and generally beneficial to my life. What works for you?

Again, I know the coronavirus is something to take seriously. And I am. (See also: We cancelled our vacation and are staying home and practicing social distancing.) We’re washing our hands and disinfecting surfaces. We’re not taking unnecessary risks. And we’re also not panicking.

Bear in mind the actual facts:
*  This virus can be killed with the most ordinary stuff: soap and water. Slay it. It is in your power to do so. Do it.
*  Cases of COVID-19 are going to increase as more people get tested. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more of it out there, because it was probably already out there before we started paying attention to it. More people are getting tested now, so it’s going to look like it’s increasing.
*  For the vast majority of cases, this is a relatively mild illness, and the vast majority of people do recover from it. People who are in especially vulnerable populations are more at risk, but most people are not “especially vulnerable,” and we should do what we can to help protect the ones who are. Use common sense and follow the science on this one.
*  This is all going to get worse before it gets better, in part because the news is going to get worse before it gets better. But it will get better.

Avoid speculation and catastrophic thinking. And if you’re prone to anxiety, as I am, this requires conscious effort. But it will help.

In the meantime, what kinds of things do you like to do to de-stress? Share it in the comments below so we can all find some fun new self-care techniques!

 

15 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on This Whole Pandemic Thing (And Why I’m Actually Not, Surprisingly, Freaking Out Right Now)

  1. Martin Elster

    That’s an excellent article, Jamail! Like you, I also get easily get anxious. I de-stress and care for myself by writing, reading, listening to music, taking long walks (sometimes very long, with or without my dog), and watching interesting videos about science or other topics I like. Thanks again for writing this article, which definitely got me to see things in a different light.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t know Einaudi’s work but dearly love it when they play Glass on our classical radio station here. They used to do it in the wee hours every Saturday night and I would lie in bed with near-insomnia and let it soothe me miraculously into sleep. I like some of Reich’s work but had a friend in college who listened to it VERY loudly and it made an unfortunate first impression on me. I should try him again.

        Like

    1. Thank you! 🙂

      I have found that video chats to be very good for me. I like Google Hangouts better than Skype, but Zoom has worked best for me, reception-wise. I’m going to be using Zoom when I begin teaching online classes next week.

      Like

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