Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, taught that the human ability to make choices gives us a unique resilience, since our fate is not simply a function of fate or fortune. Frankl noted that even in the most devastating, inhumane conditions, finding meaning, purpose and hope can engender emotional strength and the capacity to survive.
Yet COVID-19 has taught us that our circumstances are largely beyond our control. Within the span of just a few weeks, a tiny virus measuring a mere 0.06–0.14 microns (about 1/250,000 of an inch) has wrought havoc on virtually all peoples of planet Earth. Over a third of Americans say that the pandemic is having a serious impact on their mental health. But does that mean that our emotional response is also beyond our control? Are we at the mercy of anxiety, or can we still choose to thrive and flourish—or at least not decline—in the midst of the pandemic?
Psychological science has taught us that human beings have a negativity bias: We attend to, dwell on, recall and respond to unpleasant and aversive data more than we do with positive information. As a result, news feeds are rewarded with more clicks when they present the downside, and our tendency to catastrophize is only compounded by the influx of more bad news.
Fortunately, the facts are on our side: the majority of people who practice social distancing will not get COVID-19; among those who do get infected, the majority will not need hospital-level care; and the majority of those who are hospitalized will survive. It is also worth remembering that the United States economy has been through more than 20 recessions since its founding in 1776, and only one since 1900 lasted longer than 18 months (the Great Depression). So, we can choose to stay informed of trends and read the news infrequently (say, once per day), while preventing our minds from getting carried away.
Behaviorally, getting physical exercise (even a daily walk) and having a balanced diet are both important aspects of self-care, but neither is as critical as sleep. In the first days of quarantine, some colleagues from Columbia University and I sampled over 300 New Yorkers, and we found that the top predictor of distress was sleep quality, accounting for a whopping 40 percent of the variance in emotional distress. In other research, simply helping individuals to sleep more soundly has been shown to be as effective a treatment for depression as antidepressant medications.
Conversely, sleep loss or even irregular patterns of sleep are associated with negative effects on the entire central nervous system. Based on this information, you can master your anxiety by making a choice to set a bedtime, in order to regulate your circadian rhythms. You can also stop using electronic devices at least a half hour before bedtime, since exposure to electronic media can delay us from falling asleep.
Relationships also have an enormous impact on how we feel, and thriving human relationships are the top predictor of happiness on physical and mental well-being—more than money, fame, IQ or even genetics. Yet according to a national study earlier this year by the health insurer Cigna, 61 percent of American adults feel lonely, with particularly high levels among those living in rural communities. And among individuals with significant others, relationships are often tense and distant, providing additional sources of stress and strain.
But the good news is that because of COVID-19, many people are seizing the opportunity to connect with others: by some metrics, social media use has increased by 70 percent since the start of the pandemic. In this context, social distancing does not mean social isolation! You can choose to connect with others during this time of stress, ideally one-on-one as opposed to in groups. If in-person contact is not possible because of safety concerns, phone calls or video chats are the way to go.
Some of the most powerful strategies to flourishing in a crisis are borne out of spirituality. Spirituality is not necessarily religious—it simply involves the perception that there is a greater reality than the material world, whether linked to institutionalized systems or not. Gratitude, a spiritual emotion, is known to reduce anxiety and depression. The simple act of counting one’s blessings for a few minutes each day can significantly reduce stress and sadness over time.
Indeed, there is so much to be grateful for even during this crisis, such as running water, electricity, internet connectivity, modern medicine’s life-support technology, heroic hospital workers who are pushing past their limits each day, and perhaps most of all the fact that children can be carriers of COVID-19 but tend not to suffer adverse medical consequences when infected. Briefly focusing on these and other positive facets of life on a daily basis can improve your own state of mind and create resilience.
Choosing to accept life on life’s terms, called radical acceptance, can also help. The reality of COVID-19 is that we don’t know what is going to happen next, and we are inherently vulnerable. Once we choose to humbly accept that fact, it’s possible to refocus on areas where we can have an impact. The current crisis has created novel opportunities for innovation in medical research, technology, education, finances and international diplomacy. However, these opportunities only become possible when we accept with serenity that which we cannot change. To these ends, we can choose to spend a few minutes each day thinking about previous trials and tribulations that we have experienced, and any positive results that emerged once they were resolved.
In sum, we are not at the mercy of anxiety unless we choose to be. By tending to our physical needs, our relationships with others, and most of all higher-order values, we can emerge from COVID-19 even stronger and more vibrant than before.
Read more about the coronavirus outbreak from Scientific American here, and read coverage from our international network of magazines here.