How to cope with the stress associated with the coronavirus

Even if one is aware of the alternative outcomes, it is hard to predict what will eventually occur to the individual.

IDFWO’s “Otzma Quarantine Camp” (photo credit: Courtesy)
IDFWO’s “Otzma Quarantine Camp”
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Recently, Israelis and much of the rest of the world's population have been exposed to a new and clearly demanding phenomenon, namely, the spread of the coronavirus. The spread of a disease that has affected everyone, directly or indirectly, has many characteristics associated with a stressor.
The first is simply the fear that one may come down with the disease and be in danger of serious illness. Even though the latter is associated with a rather low-to-moderate probability for much of the population, the constant discussion on all the media has caught everyone's attention with little else being discussed. Even the political news has been overshadowed. Another aspect here is the lack of any clear data indicating when it will all end. If this were known, it would have a positive effect on the population.
Research has shown that uncertainty is a major cause of stress. What exactly is uncertainty? It can be defined as lacking information about how an internal or external stimulus can affect the individual. Even if one is aware of the alternative outcomes, it is hard to predict what will eventually occur to the individual.
People tolerate uncertainty with various behaviors. Some are relatively immune as they move on to other events in their lives. Others are more sensitive and relatively intolerant to uncertainty and react emotionally or with inappropriate behaviors.
In the scientific literature, intolerance of uncertainty (IU), or the way an individual perceives, interprets, and reacts to uncertainty in life, has been frequently investigated in relation to anxiety and worry. For this latter group, the mere knowledge of uncertainty is stressful. Uncertainty has a negative impact on quality of life as the individual experiences a lack of control over his or her life.
What can a person with high IU do to lessen the negative stressful effects? 
Before discussing remedies or techniques for dealing with the situation, one important distinction must be made. The stressor is some outside factor or stimulus over which we have little control. On the other hand, the strain refers to our reaction and here we may have some control over how we will react or what methods of coping are to be used. Some of these are mental, some are behavioral, and some are emotional
1.    Control: One simple mental trick that may work for some people is to make a mental distinction between what we can control and what we can't. Simply saying to oneself that I can't do anything about the existence of the virus in the environment around me but I can do something to control whether it will affect me and, if I do become ill, how I plan to handle it.
2.    Humor: Not only hearing humorous jokes but using it on others has been found to be very effective in studies of nursing and students facing very difficult exams. The mere fact that someone laughed or just smiled from hearing your joke makes the person feel better.
3.    Group activities: In one of the more famous studies on stress, the American Psychologist showed that people who are under stress need to be with others. In our present situation, there is an excellent Internet video communications platform where one can chat, see, and most importantly, interact with one’s parents, family, friends, students or coworkers.
It has provided for many people an alternative that is both enjoyable and comfortable. As someone who uses Zoom for teaching, I have found that the students are eager to be participants and their involvement in the lecture is not much different that it was when the lecture took place in the classroom.
4.    Making order in your life: Don’t let stress derail your healthy routines. Make efforts to eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. Many people find stress release in practices such as yoga and meditation. Besides keeping up with these activities, it is important to try to keep your home environment and activities as similar as possible as it was before the virus began affecting our lives. What that means is to try to get up at the same time as before, try to eat at the same time breakfast and dinner, try as much as possible to eat the same foods.
Other activities that may be relevant to some families and not others include calling your children or parents at the same hour every day, studying a specific subject (such as mathematics or a Talmud text or a musical piece) at the same time each day. The mere setting a schedule or routine has been found to have a positive effect.
Such behavior may explain why some large groups were found recently at the Tel Aviv beach or at a funeral of an important religious leader, against the rules set down by the government. Besides the explanation that they are willing to take the risk of getting the virus, they may have also been dealing with their personal need to keep on doing what they would have done under calmer circumstances.
Reflect on past successes. Chances are you’ve overcome stressful events in the past – and you survived! Give yourself credit. Reflect on what you did during that event that was helpful, and what you might like to do differently this time. Also, you may want to conjure up in your mind or discuss with others some good things that have happened to you in the recent past.
Limit exposure to news. When we’re stressed about something, it can be hard to look away. But compulsively checking the news only keeps you wound up. Try to limit your check-ins and avoid the news during vulnerable times of day, such as right before bedtime.
If you do listen to the news, try to hear the positive aspects related to the virus outbreak. In particular, the fact that only a small percentage of those tested are actually found to have the virus. And if infected, the vast majority come through without any major aftereffects.
Avoid dwelling on things you can’t control. When uncertainty strikes, many people immediately imagine worst-case scenarios. Get out of the habit of ruminating on negative events.
Take your own advice. Ask yourself: If a friend came to me with this worry, what would I tell her? Imagining your situation from the outside can often provide perspective and fresh ideas.
Seek support from those you trust. Many people isolate themselves when they’re stressed or worried. But social support is important, so reach out to family and friends.
Ask for help. If you’re having trouble managing stress and coping with uncertainty on your own, ask for help. Psychologists are experts in helping people develop healthy ways to cope with stress. Find a psychologist in your area.
The writer is a professor of Psychology at Ariel University and professor (Emeritus) at Bar-Ilan University. He has published many books and articles on stress and its effects at home and at work.