These are unprecedented times. For most of us, the COVID-19 pandemic is top of mind—leaving us feeling stressed and apprehensive about the future.
In today’s highly connected world, it’s hard to escape the near-constant barrage of media coverage every time we turn on the tv or pick up our phone. Eye-catching headlines outline an uncertain and ominous future. Can our economy ever bounce back? Will there be a resurgence of the virus in the Fall? Can we safely leave our homes before a vaccine is developed? Questions that leave many feeling powerless, angry, and often paralyzed with fear.
Like a moth to a flame, we keep going back for more information. According to Google trends, COVID-19 related searches by far exceed searches for any other topic. Some information, like school closings or state-mandated orders, is necessary to have. However, being exposed to 24/7 pandemic coverage can put a strain on our mental and emotional health.
The Human Brain is Wired for Negativity
We are creatures of habit. When things go as planned, we feel more in control. However, unexpected curveballs leave us feeling anxious and stressed. When faced with uncertainty, our brains are hard-wired to respond with fear, which causes a few things to happen. First, we pay more attention to our environment—scanning for any potential danger. Next, to mitigate our anxiety, we engage in reassurance-seeking behaviors to reduce doubt and uncertainty—often in the form of information-seeking. These are primal reactions designed to keep us safe and—more importantly—keep us alive.
Perhaps paradoxically, the very information we seek to calm our fears ends up traumatizing us even more.
A psychological phenomenon known as negativity bias explains why humans register negative stimuli more readily. It also explains why past traumas can have such long lingering effects.
Nobel-Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains why the brain is designed to focus on negative information:
The brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news. By shaving a few hundredths of a second from the time needed to detect a predator, this circuit improves the animal’s odds of living long enough to reproduce. (Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 301.)
Because our brains process negative information more rapidly and thoroughly, we tend to be highly persuaded by it. Unfortunately, this can have a serious impact on our mental health.
Is Your Media Consumption Traumatizing You?
Over the past two decades, several large-scale disasters (9/11 Twin Tower attacks, school shootings, suicide bombings, etc.) have been widely publicized in the media. This has led researchers to examine the type of impact media consumption can have on a person during and after a traumatic event. Studies have found that people working in high-stress, helping professions can experience stress, anxiety, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from indirect exposure to other people’s trauma.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric condition that can occur in people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Past research on PTSD mainly focused on war veterans who personally experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.
Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) is a relatively newer psychological construct. It describes a similar adverse reaction that people can experience despite never having been directly exposed to trauma themselves. In fact, researchers have now discovered that anyone can experience trauma symptoms by merely hearing a distressing story or viewing anxiety-provoking images.
Researchers have found that widely publicized traumatic events have the potential to induce a stress response in a large segment of the population via the Internet, television, or social media. A study conducted six months following the 9/11 terror attacks found that people who reported watching the most media coverage had the heaviest load of post-traumatic stress symptoms, including intrusive thoughts, nightmares, anxiety, headaches, and sleep issues.
In another study, researchers from the University of California, Irvine surveyed 4,675 Americans to assess the impact of media exposure to the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing on the subject’s stress reactions two to four weeks following the event. The researchers found that those who spent more than six hours a day watching media coverage of the bombing (and its aftermath) suffered more powerful stress reactions than did people who were directly involved in the traumatic event.
Perception is Everything
Two critical factors help determine the psychological impact a large-scale traumatic event will have on us: (1) the level of exposure to the event and (2) the perception or “meaning” given to the event. Media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic is happening almost 24/7. As such, if you spend a lot of time watching the news (high exposure) and perceive the reports to be scary or stressful (assigned meaning), you have a higher chance of experiencing adverse psychological effects. When you spend hours consuming the news, you lose the ability to appraise the information from a broader lens. This puts you at a higher risk for developing trauma-related symptoms.
According to Google trends, coronavirus searches are more popular early in the morning and late at night. This is particularly concerning, as hearing negative news in the morning can dictate your mood for the rest of the day. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that “individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning had a whopping 27% greater likelihood of reporting their day as unhappy six to eight hours later compared to the positive condition.” Furthermore, consuming news right before bed has been linked to greater rates of anxiety and insomnia.
While the coronavirus pandemic will inevitably define 2020, it doesn’t have to define your mental health. The following tools can help you better adapt to the COVID-19 crisis and come out stronger on the other side.
5 Strategies to Build Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic
1. Focus on the Facts
Let’s face it—there is a lot of unreliable news sources out there. If you are going to take the time to consume COVID-19 related news, make sure the information is from reputable, non-sensationalist sources. The same applies for sharing news stories. There is nothing worse than opening up Facebook to see a post someone has shared that has no scientific basis. Sites like FactCheck.org or snopes.com can help you verify whether the article you’re reading is from a credible news source. Also, know your limits. Figure out how much news is helpful for you to consume in a day, and aim to stick to that limit. Self-awareness goes a long way in helping you determine an appropriate amount of news to take in. If you find yourself getting anxious, it’s time to cut it off. Establishing parameters around media consumption, including social media, local or national news, will help protect your emotional well-being in the long run.
2. Foster Physical and Emotional Wellness
Stress can harm your physical, mental, and emotional health. Self-care practices that target both your body and mind help build resilience and can boost your immune system. Lifestyle factors like proper nutrition, getting enough sleep, hydration, and regular exercise can strengthen your body and help you better adapt to stress. Other activities like mindful journaling, yoga, breathing exercises, stretching, and meditation can also help improve your mood. Make sure to incorporate other activities you enjoy to return some normalcy to your life as much as possible.
3. Establish a Routine
Having a daily routine can be a stress-and sanity-saver during the current public health crisis. School closures and stay-at-home orders have forced many people to abandon their daily routines. Sit down and create a new schedule for your time at home. Try to keep things as consistent as possible and focus on what you can control. Predictable, repetitive routines are calming and help reduce anxiety.
4. Change the Narrative By Embracing Healthy Thoughts
How you think plays a significant part in how you feel — and how resilient you are when faced with obstacles. During periods of uncertainty, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Practice thought awareness to identify thinking patterns that are not serving you. You may not be able to change a highly stressful event, but you can change how you perceive and respond to it. When you find yourself interpreting something in a negative way or only focusing on the bad aspect of a situation, look for ways to reframe the information in a more balanced way. Cognitive reframing techniques are helpful for improving your mood.
5. Seek Help When Needed
Despite engaging in the strategies mentioned above, there may be times when you are left feeling stuck or have difficulty making progress on the road to resilience. Getting help when you need it is crucial in building your resilience. It’s important to get professional help if you feel like you are unable to function or would like help getting through this stressful period. A licensed mental health professional can help assist you in developing appropriate strategies.
Above all, remember that you’re not alone on this journey. While you may not be able to control all of your circumstances, you can continue to grow by focusing on the aspects of life’s challenges that you can manage.
Achor, S., & Gielan, M. (2015). Consuming negative news can make you less effective at work. Harvard Business Review.
Holman, E. A., Garfin, D. R., & Silver, R. C. (2014). Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(1), 93-98.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
Piotrkowski, C. S., & Brannen, S. J. (2002). Exposure, threat appraisal, and lost confidence as predictors of PTSD symptoms following September 11, 2001. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 72(4), 476-785.