9 tips to deal with the uncertainty of the coronavirus outbreak

COVID-19 has upended life as we know it, but experts say that there are healthy ways to cope.
When working from home isn't work out
When everyone around you is anxious and on edge, the best way to stay healthy and help those in need around you is by taking care of yourself. mapodile / Getty Images
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By Sarah DiGiulio

A few months ago, very few of us could've imagined a world in which eating dinner outside our homes or hugging a close friend would feel like a luxury from a past life. The changes we've seen in the last weeks would've been unthinkable.

The times we're living in now are also likely taking a toll on all of us, says Robin Stern, a psychologist and the associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. "We're all anxious about the news, stressed and stretched from dealing with the day-to-day disruption."

It's not just the grave news reports we're getting, says Stern. We can't engage in the usual routines that help us cope, like working out at the gym, meeting up with a friend for coffee or even our morning commute. It's natural that we're going to be more irritable, less patient and less calm, she says. The disruption and uncertainty is affecting nearly every aspect of our lives.

Uncertainty can trigger a fear response — and the stakes are high right now

What we're experiencing as a result of the pandemic is unprecedented in many ways, including the amount of uncertainty we're all facing. Uncertainty is particularly difficult to deal with because it triggers fear, says Neda Gould, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the mindfulness program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "We view uncertainty as a potential threat to our well-being."

Right now, the stakes feel really high, says Gould. We don't know how the virus might physically affect us or our loved ones, how our work and ability to provide for ourselves and our families might be affected or when we'll be able to eat, move and socialize again in the ways we like. "There's uncertainty on many levels," she says.

In general, if the stakes are higher, the threat feels higher, Gould explains. For example, let's say you're waiting to hear whether you're going to be offered a job you really want. The uncertainty around the prospect of not getting the job is a "threat" to your potential livelihood and professional happiness. By contrast, if the stakes are lower, the threat feels lower. If, for instance, a friend doesn't immediately respond to your phone call, the "threat" of not being able to chat isn't such a big deal.

Gould points out that it's the small routines in our daily lives — walking the dog, riding the train to work, picking up the dry cleaning — that help create a sense of normalcy. And often when there are larger global or societal stressors, it's these daily routines that help us "escape" those more ominous concerns and feel comforted. But she warns, "This is not the case with the coronavirus pandemic — where even our daily activities are significantly impacted."

It's not just you — none of us do well with this much uncertainty

Whether deciding when to cross a busy street, whether to buy or not buy a house or which college to attend, we all need a reasonable degree of certainty to act, explains Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. "When uncertainty strikes, especially concerning many of people's life's domains, people experience angst."

Kruglanski's work over the past several decades has investigated why some of us react to uncertainty with more intensity than others. Part of the answer, he says, is determined by the individual's need for cognitive closure, which simply put, is "the need for certainty." It's also a matter of how important or trivial the uncertainty is.

It's not surprising that right now, the amount of uncertainty we're facing is troublesome to us all, he says. "Uncertainty that is coupled with mortal danger, such as the current pandemic, is unlikely to be welcomed even by people with a low degree of the need for closure."

How to better manage when the world has been turned upside down

There are a number of healthy coping strategies you can use to manage stress and anxiety during the pandemic. Here's what the experts say will help.

1. Start with you

Self-care has never been more important, says Stern. When everyone around you is anxious and on edge, the best way to stay healthy and help those in need around you is by taking care of yourself. Get sleep, eat well and engage in some kind of movement every day. Do the things that will help you stay calm and centered. Those steps are the priority right now.

2. Don't judge your anxieties — or those of the people around you

Go easy on yourself and others. This is an unusual situation, so don't beat yourself up for feeling anxious or upset, says Stern. Acknowledge your feelings and think about how to deal with them one step at a time.

Similarly, don't judge others for their anxieties or reactions. People are going to miss out on sports tournaments, graduations, weddings and even funerals, along with countless other celebrations, over the next few months. There are going to be disappointments. Those feelings are real, and they matter — even if other losses are happening that you might view as more serious. It's important for all of us to keep the bigger picture in perspective, but we still need to give ourselves (and those around us) permission to feel the feelings we have, Stern says.

3. Stay connected — virtually

Kruglanski suggests thinking of virtual meetups as both communication and commiseration. Sterns adds that it's times like these when we need one another most. And even though we can't physically be together, it's important to stay connected through social media, phone calls and video conferencing.

4. Try practicing radical acceptance

Get as comfortable as you can with the idea that many things — including those that you can normally control — are no longer within your control, Stern says. Right now, the only constant is change. It's a hard mindset to adopt, she says, but letting go of the things you can't control will help you focus on the things you can. She suggests starting with positive self-talk. Tell yourself that you'll concentrate on the things you can control, such as cooking a meal, calling a friend or starting your day with a workout.

5. Focus on the facts

It's important to stay informed about the new policies being implemented and any updated guidelines you should follow. But keep your focus on the facts without adding the "what ifs," says Gould. He recommends that if you do find yourself in a cycle of catastrophic thinking, practicing deep breathing and mindfulness techniques to dial it back.

6. Avoid information overload

Stay informed, but don't read about the pandemic all day every day. Pick a few trusted sources of information and decide when you're going to tune in and check them. Then stick with that schedule. Constant news consumption, says Stern, is more likely to fuel your anxiety than to be helpful.

7. Have fun

It's a serious situation, but taking time to do the things that make you smile and laugh can make daily life more enjoyable, Stern says. Find the small joys in the situation, like getting to spend more time with loved ones, cooking or watching funny movies. We need those warm, caring moments right now, she says.

8. Be grateful for what you have

Spend some time thinking about the things that make you feel grateful. Then express your gratitude to others. Tell your friends and family how much you appreciate them. When they reciprocate, says Stern, accept their messages of appreciation and gratitude. Sharing these feelings can make us feel cared for — and make us feel good.

9. Take control of the things you can control

Focus on the aspects of your daily routine that you can still follow — or create a new routine that suits your current situation. Kruglanski says this can help you stay on track throughout the day, as well as allow you to continue progressing toward your bigger life goals. Look for opportunities to catch up on the backlog of things you always wished you had more time for, like learning a language, reading novels or reorganizing your closets. Find new routines that make you happy, says Kruglanski. "Exploit the positive opportunities."

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