We’re living in a time of high anxiety. There is more than enough to worry about pertaining to our own physical and mental health and financial security. And there’s another widely experienced stressor that many of us didn’t anticipate: the anxiety that sets in when someone you know doesn’t understand the severity of the coronavirus outbreak—especially when it’s a close friend or member of your own family.
This applies to people of any age. Though we recently wrote about how to talk to parents, grandparents and older relatives about the coronavirus, some young people have also been ignoring warnings from public health experts and traveling to places like Daytona Beach for spring break. (Spring break destinations are, at the best of times, optimal places for spreading germs, thanks to being crammed in hotel rooms, sharing cups and all that making out.) People disagree with us all the time, so why is this such a stressor? Lifehacker spoke with several mental health experts about how to deal with stress and anxiety you may face after experiencing someone’s lackadaisical attitude about COVID-19, and why it makes us anxious in the first place.
Regardless of why someone is indifferent about the outbreak, a casual conversation about public health can quickly turn into a stressful argument when you find out that they’re not taking this seriously. According to Dr. W. Nate Upshaw, a psychiatrist and medical director of NeuroSpa TMS, there are two ways why a situation like this could be stressful. “It could cause a general concern that people are not taking the outbreak seriously,” he tells Lifehacker. “Talking to a friend or loved who thinks this way may remind you that there are others not taking the threat seriously, which can be stressful. The other way this can cause anxiety is the real possibility that someone not following recommended protocols might infect you or someone you love.”
Along the same lines, Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist, tells Lifehacker that part of what stresses us out is that when people don’t consider the coronavirus as a serious threat it could “seriously place a burden on those around them, as a lax attitude on any single person’s part increases the chance of transmission and severe illness or death for that individual and to anyone who comes in contact with that person.”
It can also cause a fight-or-flight anxiety response in those who are following all the public health guidelines because it prompts a person to question their own judgment, Linda Snell, a therapist at New Method Wellness explains. “It can lead to feelings of invalidation regarding your own response to the seriousness of the coronavirus, which creates feelings of doubt. Doubt can lead to an ongoing need for reassurance, causing one to feel anxious in the absence of reassurance,” she tells Lifehacker. “Conformity is a form of reassurance.” Here are six suggestions from mental health professionals for how to manage your anxiety in these situations.
The coronavirus outbreak hasn’t been easy for Dr. Steven Rosenberg, a psychotherapist and behavioral specialist. “My fiancé is not taking the coronavirus seriously,” he tells Lifehacker. “She actually said to me that she really doesn’t know why there is such a fuss. This is coming from a woman who worries about everything.” He has found that bringing himself back to the moment during stressful conversations has helped.
“I saw that my anxiousness was seeing everyone getting sick with the virus in my mind,” he says. “I just brought myself back to the present tense and got away from negative anticipation of the future,” he says. “When I came back to the moment, I felt amazingly better…Be mindful of what you are doing in the now! Be in control of yourself in the moment. It feels better.”
When you try to talk to someone about the coronavirus and they are unfazed about the whole thing, you can at least check in with them about their general health. If you have a friend, family member or colleague who you don’t think is taking sufficient precautions, remind them of the importance of keeping themselves psychologically and physically strong so they can be resistant to the coronavirus, Dr. Carole Lieberman, a board certified psychiatrist and public health expert tells Lifehacker. “Encourage them to eat well, take vitamins, get enough sleep and exercise, wash their hands and do things to decrease their stress every day,” she explains. “When you have done as much as you can to help them focus on these basic foundations of their health, it will relieve your anxiety, too.”
At this point, you may have already tried talking to the person in question about the gravity of the situation and may be beyond the point where anything you can say will make a difference. But if you haven’t, Upshaw recommends attempting to educate the person. “There are many credible articles on news outlets and government websites that you can share with them,” he says. Upshaw uses the analogy of preparing for a hurricane when talking to people about the severity of the coronavirus outbreak:
Preparing for a hurricane is a good analogy to use when explaining why people should prepare for the COVID-19 virus. When a hurricane warning is issued, there is a need to prepare in advance, while everything around you looks and seems quite normal. We can look at the damage of past hurricanes, however, to see that the need to prepare is real…We know that COVID-19 has affected the elderly more, and especially those with compromised health, so even though things do not yet look bad in this country, they should follow the recommendations of experts and authorities to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19. It can be hard for people to wrap their minds around this issue. Likening it to a situation they already have familiarity with can make it easier to understand.
When people are faced with family members or social situations where anxiety is running high because of their loved ones’ lax attitude about COVID-19, Manly says that it’s important to have solid boundaries as to what is expected. These can include requesting that those coming into your home wash their hands, use sanitizer or refrain from contact with you if they are coughing or ill in any way. “Strong boundaries will help reduce unwanted or inappropriate behaviors and also increase a personal sense of safety and calm,” she explains. “Solid boundaries actually reduce anxiety for all concerned, as it is important for all of us to have structure and clarity as to what is expected.”
Another tactic Manly suggests is to tell people who aren’t taking the coronavirus seriously that’s stressing you out—in the nicest way possible. “As some people do not realize that their behavior is stressful to others, it can be important to state this in a kind, honest way,” she says. Of course, this may not be the easiest option, but some people do genuinely want to know if they’re doing something that’s upsetting other people. It may not change their mind about the pandemic, but they may adjust their behavior or methods of communication with you to decrease the anxiety.
As we discussed above, when people don’t take a threat as seriously as we do, it can result in feelings of invalidation. Snell recommends focusing on your own self-validation instead of seeking reassurance and validation from others. “This is the practice of accepting your own internal experience, your thoughts and your feelings without criticizing or judging yourself for having those feelings,” she explains. “Self-validation is not accepting your feelings as facts, but instead just sitting with your emotions without reacting to them. The ability to validate your thoughts and feelings will help you decrease your anxiety, allow you to calm yourself and assist you with managing your emotions in a more effective way.”