All the uncertainty about COVID-19 robs you of control—and that's terrifying.

By Jenna Birch
March 26, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has filled life with a lot of unknowns. Will we get sick? Will a family member or friend end up hospitalized? Will we lose our jobs? Will we need to cancel our wedding? How long will the virus be at the forefront of our everyday lives?

All these what-ifs piling on top of one another are a recipe for panic. This is because we can’t control what we don’t know, Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a clinical counselor in private practice and adjunct professor of Counseling Psychology at North Park University in Chicago, tells Health. “ The fear of the unknown becomes terrifying because no matter how many ways we try to perceive an outcome, we understand there may be so many more scenarios that we couldn’t even consider,” she explains.

Fight-or-flight response kicks in when we start to fear, which is a “natural mechanism to protect ourselves,” says Ivankovich. “But when the circumstances remain unknown, we stay in a heightened state of awareness, which wreaks havoc on the mind and body. This causes us immense stress, which leads to panic, turning to anxiety. The unknown steals the one thing that gives us comfort in scary times, and that’s control.”

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Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist, addiction psychiatrist, and an associate professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University School of Public Health in Rhode Island, says “powerlessness” can lead to a couple of different responses. One is a “defeatist” attitude. “You might think, Why should I devote energy to this? I don’t have control over my own life,” he tells Health. That mentality can spiral into anxiety or depression.

But a feeling of powerlessness might also tell your brain to kick things into gear and “do something to regain control,” says Dr. Brewer. “It might not be obvious what to do, but it doesn’t stop us from trying something. What do you do at a time like this? Just do something. That gets into the loops of the brain, that doing something is better than doing nothing. But no, it could in fact make it worse.”

Panic is motivated by such thinking, and it's exacerbated by social contagion. When everyone is rushing to grocery stores to buy up all the supplies, and respected newspapers are filled with constant negative headlines, you panic. And it's called “blind panic” for a reason, he says; you’re not really thinking things through. “Toilet paper became the meme, because it’s ridiculous,” says Dr. Brewer. “It doesn’t make sense. There’s not a shortage of toilet paper.” Basically, you don’t see clearly at all when you’re worrying.

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Ken Yeager, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says COVID-19 is also a trigger for people who already have anxiety. When looking for concrete answers amid uncertainty, everything is a trigger point.

“People who are prone to anxiety have that reinforced by even the smallest things,” Yeager tells Health. “If you’re prone to anxiety and you think you’re going to get sick, a sneeze or a sniffle can feed into that anxiety. If you are fearful you’re losing your job and you hear about someone from Poughkeepsie who cannot get a job, you worry that will happen to you.”

That said, no one is immune from anxiety right now. Yeager notes the definition of clinical anxiety is “excessive anxiety and worry occurring more days than not” for at least six months. “Probably most of us fit that criteria right now,” he says.

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It’s important to remember that you can’t control what you don’t know, and worrying isn’t an effective remedy for fear. “We have to sit back and learn to be with the uncertainty rather than try to do something to make it go away,” says Dr. Brewer. Think selling off stock, or constantly checking your fever.  “[Whatever we do] is very unlikely to make it better.”

Here are some ideas for coping with the unknown and feeling better about it.

Slow down your thoughts by organizing them

Anxiety speeds up your thoughts, and that can cause you to make rash decisions or take quick actions. Worrying is not the answer when so much is uncertain, though. “Worry makes it harder for us to think, and we need to be able to plan and think the best we can,” says Dr. Brewer. “Things are changing very rapidly right now.”

The key is to force your body and mind into slowdown, says Yeager. “First off, you have to tell yourself to breathe; take deep breaths,” he says. “Slow your thoughts down. Maybe the quick way to do that is just to get out a word document or a notebook. Start writing to-do lists. Nothing controls anxiety better than putting a checkmark on a to-do list.”

This does two things, says Yeager: it compels you to focus on something concrete and creates a sense of control over something you actually can control, whether that’s a walk outside or an assignment at work. “You want to focus on one thing at a time rather than 15 things at a time, and try to make it happen in a way that makes logical sense,” he says.

If it helps, says Ivankovich, you can think through several likely scenarios for your coming year. “While we can’t prepare for the unknown, we can consider how we would respond in different situations, and take steps to put those measures in place—to the best of our abilities,” she says. “We cannot run from the situation at hand.” Note what you can do now, and then resolve to let go of anything that is not something you can act upon.

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Reach out to others for gut checks

Ivankovich says to consider contacting a therapist if you are struggling. “Many therapists are offering short-term assistance for free,” she says. You can connect with counselors digitally. There are also text-based tools and apps for therapy available, which many are utilizing amid the COVID-19 crisis.

You can also use trusted friends as gut-checks against your wildest anxieties about the future. Talk with a friend or your partner about your fears. “Get a reality check about the way you’re thinking,” says Yeager. “Say, ‘Am I off base? Am I completely out of my mind? Is this the right kind of thinking to have?’ The answer doesn’t mean you’re wrong, per se, but this person may be able to offer a different way of looking at things.”

Yeager says we all have uncertainty right now. “Part of coping with uncertainty is being willing to manage it with lists and processes and people,” he says, noting it is sort of like chess. You can only plan a few moves ahead, because a lot can change. We have to be willing to control what we can, and adapt when we need to.

Stop checking the news so much

Constantly tuning into the 24/7 news cycle means you never know what you’re going to get. “The brain treats the news like a casino,” says Dr. Brewer. “With slot machines, you don’t know when you are going to win. If you go on every five minutes, you don’t know when you’re going to get the next big story and get this dopamine hit.” He says it's “the same intermittent reinforcement schedule” that can be addictive. Check the news only twice or three times a day, so you’re getting updates that are similar in scale each time.

If the negative headlines are still causing anxiety, shut off those live updates. “If you want to get news or accurate information, the best way to learn what to focus on is to get accurate info,” he advises. Dr. Brewer suggests the World Health Organization (WHO) or Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), because “they are not going to put anything up that isn’t rock solid,” he says, whereas other news outlets have evolving story updates. This can cause an anxious mind to just keep going.

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Engage in mindfulness and deep breathing

Yeager says to “ground yourself in the familiar.” When you are anxious, it helps to go to a space you know and love. Maybe you relax in a comfy chair in front of a window, do some cooking in your kitchen, or snuggle into a cozy reading nook. A hot bath or shower can also help slow you down. “I don’t care if it’s the middle of the day,” says Yeager. “If you’re anxious and it slows you down, do it.”

Mindfulness practices can also help, says Ivankovich. “Take the time to explore ways to destress that work for you,” she says. “Practice gratitude; write in your journal. Walk, exercise as much as you can.”

Sleep should be prioritized right now, even though you might be far off your regular schedule. “At least one hour before bed, turn all your screens off,” says Yeager. “Start slowing your day down. Ten minutes before getting ready for bed, find a dimly lit room and focus on your breathing. Slow your breaths to the point where you are most comfortable with it, as slowly as you can get it, and do this for 10 minutes.”

After you do that, continue with your nighttime routine, get into bed and “start slowing your breathing down” once again, says Yeager. “You will fall asleep quicker and stay asleep longer if you start slowing down well before bed.” Deep breaths allow more oxygen to fill your lungs, and focusing on them can help you let go of more stressful thoughts.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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