I'm a Psychologist in Isolation. Here's How I'm Staying Calm During the Pandemic

As a Clinical Psychologist with a disaster stress management background I have experience scrambling to respond to the psychological needs of people affected by traumatic events. However, at 3:00 in the morning of March 2, as I joined a line of 60 Texas college students dragging their suitcases down a steep, deserted street in an isolated town in Italy, I found myself at the center of an unfolding, worldwide coronavirus disaster.

After a 4-hour bus ride on a road that literally tunnels through mountains, we navigated the new normal of international travel; cancelled flights, masked TSA agents and the insidious fear that a border will close before you can cross it. Although there were no cases of virus in the town where we were studying, and we are all asymptomatic, our Study Abroad program was cancelled 5 weeks into a 13-week semester. We are now on our tenth day of monitored self-isolation in our homes.

Of course, we are hardly unique in the ranks of people whose lives have been upended by the coronavirus, and the priority right now has to be minimizing the spread of the virus and providing care for those who get it. However, the ramifications of this situation are already rippling across the world in political, economic, and psychological waves. As governments struggle to figure out what to do, beloved rituals including sporting events, parades, and even religious services are being cancelled and stock markets are swinging wildly, it is easy to feel that the world is collapsing around us. The clamoring voices in the media jockeying to gain our attention, aren’t helping.

Gaining perspective

So how can we maintain a modicum of perspective during this unprecedented event?

First and foremost, we need to focus on what we can control. We don’t know who has the virus, or where it will spread. But we can wash our hands properly, get enough sleep, and be thoughtful about not sharing our germs with others.

We can also take this opportunity to learn more about immunology and epidemiology. I know from years of teaching a course on Psychology and Health that the average college student can’t articulate the difference between bacteria or a virus, doesn’t know what an antibody is or does, and hasn’t gotten a flu shot. I suspect that most adults aren’t much different. Why don’t we, as individuals, take more responsibility for understanding the science and research that literally impacts our survival? The internet is awash with videos and tutorials on both immunology and epidemiology. If you can’t explain how a vaccine works, or why there is so much conflict about what the denominator of the COVID-19 lethality equation should be, it is time to start studying. Otherwise, you aren’t in a position to make educated decisions about this viral outbreak.

How do you know what information to trust?

That brings me to another concern. In an age when there is too much information, not too little, how can you figure out which information sources to trust? Fortunately, there are ways to improve your media literacy. Before you pass on a news story or viral clip, assess who created it, why they have chosen that particular message, how they framed and transmitted it, and how it might impact people with different viewpoints. A number of reputable sites online are dedicated to helping people educate themselves, and others, on how to be a responsible consumer in the age of the internet. We need to create a world where we are able to justify why we hold a particular opinion, and hesitant to be the person that shares false news.

How to cope in an out-of-control world

Finally, from a psychological point of view, we have to accept the fact that when we can’t control the world around us, we can control our responses. This viral outbreak is scary, and particularly threatening to older people with pre-existing health conditions, or poor access to health care. The lack of scientifically informed policies and solutions is unsettling, and the disruption of our daily lives is disorienting.

But it is a temporary situation. We have evidence to suggest that 80% of the people who get this virus have mild symptoms. In China, where the outbreak started, infection rates are decreasing. Scientists are testing a variety of existing anti-viral and cancer treating drugs to see what will interfere with the replication of this viral strain. Vaccines are in the works.

In the meantime, we are all being given something rare in the modern world, a chance to slow down, and perhaps take a break from the frenzy of our daily lives. Have you been meaning to read a classic book, learn how to meditate or do yoga, or paint a bookcase? Going on calmly with our lives doesn’t seem particularly dramatic, or heroic, but it is the most effective way to combat this panic pandemic.

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