How to Stay Calm In the Time of Coronavirus

As news about the pandemic continues to unfold, it's natural to feel uneasy and anxious. Not only has the coronavirus (COVID-19) swiftly disrupted our daily lives, but the information surrounding it is changing just as fast.

Understandably, you may feel overwhelmed with emotion. Don't worry; we're right there with you. To help you navigate this uncertain time, we turned to Julie Frischkorn, L.C.S.W., the director of behavioral health and mindfulness at Spark360 to learn more about the emotional effects many of us are experiencing. Whether you're feeling fear, anxiety, frustration or worry, we hope this will help you understand why we react the way we do—and what you can do about it.

The Psychology Behind Emotional Responses

By now, you've likely witnessed and experienced a plethora of contrasting emotional responses to current events. Some of us jump to worse-case scenarios, while others brush everything off. You may have loved ones reacting differently than you. Some people swing back and forth between different emotions.

While it might be frustrating, it helps to recognize that our responses are based on existing feelings toward stressful events. In the case of COVID-19, the event happens to be exceptionally unpredictable and widespread. This can spark catastrophic thinking in some people, including those who have had significant challenges in life, notes Frischkorn. They might jump to worst-case scenarios because that's what they have experienced.

But it can also go in the opposite direction. According to Frischkorn, "folks who have [experienced] extreme difficulties may not be phased by crises." Thus, they might downplay the severity of a situation.

As for those who haven't experienced significant trauma? They can go either way, says Frischkorn. They might expect the worst possible outcome in an effort to protect themselves—or they might feel "immune" from such struggles.

Needless to say, our emotional reactions can easily sway toward either extreme. Yet, in the face of a serious, large-scale situation, it may serve us well to strive for that middle ground.

Calmness is Key

As we collectively wade through unpredictable waters, it's worth recognizing how calmness is essential for productivity and safety.

When we practice calmness, our amygdala stays quiet. The amygdala is basically the "smoke alarm" of our brain, Frischkorn explains. "It warns us when there is danger. When this part of the brain lights up, it shuts down the prefrontal cortex." The prefrontal cortex is involved in executive function, which includes skills like thinking before acting, handling unexpected situations and maintaining focus—all of which are critical in the current climate.

By staying calm, you're actively taming the amygdala, which keeps our prefrontal cortex online. This empowers us to think—and act—in the most efficient way possible.

Managing Stress In Stressful Times

With information changing by the minute, it may feel difficult to keep calm while coping with stress, but there are some practices that you can incorporate into your day to help ease your mind. Before you allow negative emotions to take over, call on one of these proven practices to decrease stress levels and increase happiness.

1. Practice gratitude: For a simple, powerful way to improve optimism and inner peace, practice gratitude as much as possible. "Write down three things each day that you are thankful for," suggests Frischkorn, even if it's in the "Notes" section of your smartphone.

2. Move your body: As the current situation evolves, our bodies are bound to release stress hormones. Instead of letting these hormones build up, aim to stay active to keep your mind occupied and endorphins flowing. Go for solo walks, play backyard tag with the kids or experiment with workouts you can do at home.

3. Reduce your triggers: While you can't always stop the smoke alarm from going off, you can recognize and minimize your triggers. Triggers can come from anywhere, including the daily news, social media posts or phone calls from a particularly paranoid friend. "If you can't eliminate [these triggers, try] to reduce your exposure to them," recommends Frischkorn.

4. Get enough sleep: Prioritizing sleep is more important now than ever. Adequate sleep is necessary for supporting your stress response, as well as a healthy immune system. In fact, poor sleep can reduce activity in the amygdala, which can negatively affect your emotions.

5. Listen to reputable sources: When you do seek out new information, be cautious. Protect your emotional and mental health by fact-checking anything you see on social media, and think twice before sharing information. Always head to official government websites or sources you trust to confirm breaking news.

6. Connect with other people: Amid physical distancing, it's necessary to avoid emotional distancing. Human beings are wired for connection, and social relationships are crucial for our overall well-being. To maintain connections during this strange time, Frischkorn suggests scheduling virtual coffee dates with friends, calling elderly relatives and smiling to others when you see people in public.

7. Be gentle on yourself: Let go of the idea that you must "make the most" of this time. It can feel difficult to give 100 percent right now—and that's okay. Give yourself the permission to press the reset button as needed, says Frischkorn.

If you're having trouble managing stress or anxiety, consider talking to a therapist; many mental health professionals are offering virtual sessions during the pandemic. Most importantly, take care of yourself, and be kind to others. We're all in this together.