5 Ways to Manage Viral Anxiety

The first weeks of March 2020 will be etched in my memory as that time Covid-19 hit Boston and other parts of the US. When many companies cancelled all but essential travel and sent everyone working from home for the rest of the month, something I haven’t seen since 9-11. Disaster response protocols were activated. Universities moved to online-only classes and schools cancelled altogether for several weeks. Sports teams shut down and the market crashed.

People are worried and based on what we know so far, justifiably so. But anxiety is spreading faster and deeper than the virus itself in many places. Everyone I talk to is living with some level of change, stress and uncertainty. Should I travel, even if where I’m going doesn’t have it yet? How much is this going to affect our business or my job? Should I take public transportation? Go to that event?  What should I stock up on, if anything?

I’ll fully admit to having a wide range of emotions, including relief that it appears mild in kids to deep concerns about the impact on the economy. Most of the time my rational brain is in control. Every now and then, my lizard brain shows up. My mother is severely immuno-compromised and was visiting Seattle right when the first deaths were announced. I sent a sternly worded text to my dad that basically said “GTFO.” I did not race to the store and stock up on pasta, rice, beans, masks, or even hand sanitizer. I did order cold and fever medicine since we were low. But during checkout, lizard brain took over and I irrationally added toilet paper, chicken noodle soup and boxed milk (?!) to the order. I promised Mr. Stevens I would donate the food to our local pantry in two months if it proved to be as ridiculous as it now seems.

These past two weeks have made it clear that we will be challenged for the next month, at least, to manage uncertainty as effectively as possible. Here are five tips that so far are helping me maintain perspective.

  1. Stay in the moment. We have an international trip in late Spring. I’m making no decisions now. All I can do is decide what makes the most sense today and this week for this place. Yes, I’ll be bummed if it gets canceled, but there is no benefit of solving that issue today.
  2. Be prepared and move decisively when needed. Planning has been shown to reduce anxiety so last week we started planning for four of us to be housebound. We ordered extra Ethernet cords and they arrived just as school closures were announced. We moved WeSpire to fully remote once the state of emergency was declared. We are running different forecast scenarios at work to be prepared for a slowdown.
  3. Read trustworthy news sources in limited quantity. I found myself in the early days checking media way more frequently than normal. I now limit myself to a morning check in, mid-day and an evening check in. I’m sticking to reputable sources like The New York Times and The Boston Globe, the Atlantic, public radio, and only short bursts of social media. I try not to turn on cable news.
  4. Breathe and take walks, ideally in nature. Meditation, prayer and/or deep breathing are all critical aspects of anxiety management. If you don’t meditate, strongly recommend giving Headspace or another program a try. Nature walks are also highly recommended for reducing anxiety and maintaining social distance.
  5. Stay connected and find ways to be kind. I have a number of friends in travel and hospitality and have pinged several just to let them know I’m thinking about them. I’m calling home more, knowing how stressful this has to be for my parents. Research shows that when you are kind to others, you reduce your own stress and anxiety.
  6. People are already suffering, physically, emotionally and economically. No one knows exactly how long this will all last or what long-term impact it will have. It’s an unprecedented event in my lifetime. But we can take steps to maintain our own wellbeing in order to be better able to help others. To quote the airlines, “put your own oxygen mask on first, then assist others.”

Quote of the Week:  Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Neibuhr

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