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Regulating Emotions in a COVID-19 World

Tom Hollenstein
Mar 14 · 6 min read

My university suspended clasess yesterday, so I shared this with students adjusting to social distancing and self-quarantine…

As we all traverse this novel COVID-19 situation, we will all feel strong emotions and, given the uncertainty and potential threats, most likely anxiety. As someone who studies the regulation of emotion, trying to understand what works and why, I would like to offer some evidence-based suggestions that may help during the coming weeks of disruption and relative isolation.

Acceptance: The most prominent feature of the current situation is the difficulty to predict what will happen, a loss of control. This is true on the best of days but may be more intense with uncertainty about the global situation we are in. The most successful approaches in these situations involve controlling what you can and trying to accept the rest. What can you control? Well, all of the things that we know work to minimize transmission of a virus — wash your hands, touch your face less, try to avoid direct contact with surfaces in public, cough/sneeze into your elbow, and in as much as is possible minimize the number of people you interact with and keep a distance when you do. These ALL work, and very well. All of these are DOING something and doing something important. Try to ACCEPT everything else that seems uncertain and is outside of your control. We know this is temporary and that most people will recover. What we do not know is how long this will go on, or the specific ramifications of shutting things down, and we cannot control government or school responses, etc. Accepting that these are currently not knowable, and accepting the natural emotions that arise, is an important effort to make and it will help to reduce any sense of distress about these novel and unpredictable circumstances.

Distraction: Another thing under your control is what you pay attention to. Focusing on the drama unfolding on a day-to-day basis has its limits it terms of its usefulness and it is important to focus on other things that you enjoy or that enhance your life. Read a novel, play a game, watch a movie, play music, do some spring cleaning, bake or cook, visit a museum (virtually) or catch up on all those things you have said you wish you had more time to do. Using distraction too much in everyday life can sometimes backfire, but it is a great approach to use when we experience situations we cannot control.

Reappraisal: By far, the most effective strategy for regulating emotions such as anxiety in uncontrollable situations is reappraisal — thinking about the situation in a different way. The reason this works so well is that the thing that initiates an emotion is often an appraisal — how we think of the significance or meaning of an event. So, a re-appraisal is a way to reconsider or reframe that meaning. Here are a few examples of how reappraisal might work in the current situation:

- Refocusing — while it is easy for us to focus on “what does this mean for me?”, an alternative which may be appropriate in this situation is “what does it mean for others?” Indeed, those who are at low risk for severe infection should be concerned more about the possibility of transmitting the virus to someone who is at high risk, rather than just their own health. So, one way to reduce distress and anxiety about your own uncertain future or self-isolation is to think of how you can have a positive impact on controlling (see bit about control and acceptance above) the spread.

- Reframing — there are many ways to reframe a situation. One possibility for those distressed by the social isolation or feeling like their anxiety is unique is to notice how each of us are not alone in this. The entire world is grappling with their uncertainties, responses, and self- or other-imposed social distancing, just like you. We are all in this together. There are very few moments in which we can perceive the entire planet sharing the same experience. Often this comes from common threat. This may not diminish your anxiety, but it might change your sense of feeling alone or lonely over the coming weeks.

Social Support: There are two ways that social support can have an impact on our emotions. The first is the obvious one — receiving support from others. Support from others is powerful and can change how you feel about a situation quite rapidly. But in these socially distant circumstances, it may be that you need to reach out rather than wait for someone to offer support. With cellular and internet tools, this is not as daunting as it once was. Check in with people to share what is going on or just to say hi. Some people share a video chat while watching a movie “together.” Whatever it is, connecting with others is good.

The second way is that you will actually feel better is by providing support to someone else. Reach out, check in, figure out ways to share and help. Maybe this is online, or maybe it is making a meal or doing some shopping for your elderly neighbor (with appropriate cautions to not infect others, of course). Or maybe it is as simple as being there to listen. Often, when we see others having a hard time, we want to jump in right away and offer a solution. Sometimes just listening and validating someone’s feelings is enough. It is one of the great ironic truisms of life that helping others makes us feel better about ourselves.

Other ways to spend your socially distant and more idle time to better manage your emotions.

Online tools: If you are someone who deals with anxiety more frequently and intensely than others, having a break from the normal day-to-day expectations, deadlines, etc., may be an opportunity to work more directly on how you manage your anxiety. While the most effective approach for severe anxiety is therapist-led Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the principles of CBT and tools for applying them in your everyday life are easily accessible online. These tools are ways to change our common thought patterns, such as how bad things are going to be in the future, and are useful for everyone regardless of the intensity of your emotions. For example, there are great guides that allow you to use worksheets typically given as “homework” in CBT and even some apps that have been scientifically tested for effectiveness. These and many other tools are really helpful in the short and long term for everyone.

Activity, Diet, & Sleep: It can be challenging when your routine is disrupted and you are being a responsible citizen by limiting your departures from home. Eating well and keeping active are really great ways to take care of your mind by taking care of your body. Any kind of activity that expends physical energy is really helpful*. Also, try to keep to a moderate diet (not munching on snacks all night while bingeing a TV show). And do whatever works for you to get plenty of sleep. While activity, diet, and sleep are not changing emotions directly, they go a long way to keep you less reactive and more flexible when emotions do arise.

These are trying times and emotions are central to our experiences. It is perfectly natural to experience an array of emotions. While we do not want to eliminate emotions altogether because they provide valuable information about our relationship to the world, we can manage them in a way that helps us to function as we need. By building up our “emotional muscles,” we can find that we are stronger and more resilient than we might think we are.

*Note: In a previous version, there was a recommendation for outside activities that was based on older information about the airborne transmission of the virus. This has been deleted so that it is clear that physical distance is important if necessary but remaining in isolation is the best guarantee to not spread the virus. Please keep informed with the latest information from your local and federal sources.

Tom Hollenstein

Written by

Developmental psychologist researching emotions and mental health trying to translate the science for mass audience & think about food/music: tomhollenstein.com

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