It’s official: we are in a pandemic. Actually two of them. One, we all know, is the spread of the coronavirus. The second: a pandemic of fear.

Being in the grip of panic hurts us in any crisis. Just when we need to think clearly and stay calm, panic pitches our brain into foggy thinking and our body into tension.

Here’s the trouble: we can’t control what we feel, when we will feel it, nor how strong the feeling will be. Feelings like panic come unbidden.

Our choice point comes once the feeling – panic, fear, worry – arises. Then we can choose to either act from those feelings, or in ways that help us drop them.

‘Resilience’ means recovering from upsets like these more quickly, so our minds are once again able to think at their best and we feel calm.
Research has identified several ways to enhance our capacity for recovery.

Some background. Worry, at its best, can have a positive outcome, as when we ponder a challenge and come up with actions we can take to improve the situation. You may be an executive having to pilot an operation through a sudden downturn in business and people now working at home. Or you may be one of those people having to figure out how to work productively from home – or how to stay safe and healthy if you still have to go in to work. The worrisome challenges COVID-19 poses us all are countless.

Worry that’s productive peaks as we face some urgent threat and then vanishes once the danger passes. But panic indicates the worst kind of worry, where we ruminate on a threat – like the coronavirus – and end up imagining the worst that can happen without coming up with any positive steps we might take. Stanford researchers call such intense worry ’rumination’, which just reverberates and intensifies in our mind. Such toxic worry has become a pandemic in itself.

Our propensity to worry ourselves to the point of panic is a relic of our ancestral past, a time in early human pre-history when we had to be on constant guard for dangers, like large beasts that wanted to eat us. The wiring for such vigilance now comes hard-wired into our brain.

The brain’s radar for threat-detection centers on circuits that flow in and out of the amygdala, a node in the emotional centers. If the amygdala signals a threat – the virus, or even a worrisome tone of voice in our boss – the brain’s wiring triggers a cascade of reactions fixating our focus on that threat. This means our attention gets captured, and we have difficulty focusing on, say, some important task at hand – let alone being creative.

Our thinking brain, the layers of the prefrontal cortex, goes awry while intense fear or panic have us in their grip.

The good news: our prefrontal circuits include some that can just-say-no to the panicky messages from our amygdala circuitry. And science finds we can strengthen those circuits using some of the methods I’m sharing with you.

With a calm and clear mind you will be better equipped to meet the coming challenges, as the virus is likely to spread widely over the next several weeks. You will need to be more present to the moment you are in. And that presence may well prove essential for the next challenge: Changing unconscious habits.

Science names three key components of any habit: the cue, which then triggers the sequence of actions, and the reward that reinforces that sequence. The habit of a nightly snack, for example, has getting ready for bed as the cue, opening the fridge and grabbing a goodie as the sequence, and the yummy taste as the reward.

Changing a habit means replacing the old sequence with a new one. Not so easy when the habit is done out-of-awareness. With this pandemic touching your virus-tainted hand to your face is the main vector for infection – the virus needs to get into your nose or mouth to do you harm. Now here’s the bad news: we touch our face about 90 times a day (a best estimate) without noticing. You’ve got to start noticing to change that habit.

Here’s a list of new, healthier habits you can learn to acquire, from James Robb, MD, a medical school pathologist who happened to be one of the first to study coronaviruses. He recommends – and is taking himself – these steps to avoid getting COVID-19. They are much like other lists you’ve seen, but this time think about how you would go about changing the sequence with each set of cues:

1. Wash your hands for 20 seconds whenever you can. We’ve all heard this one. But the usual hand wash lasts around 6 seconds. The new habit here might be singing silently “Happy Birthday” to yourself two times, which lasts around 20 seconds. Another good habit: wash hands after being anywhere with other people or where other people have been. Cue: washing hands. New sequence: for 20 seconds. Reward: feeling safer – the reinforcement for all these habit shifts.

2. Don’t shake hands, or touch other people. The new etiquette, touching elbows or fist bumps, will do for now. Cue: greeting or meeting someone; sequence: Don’t connect physically.

3. Don’t touch public surfaces. Virus droplets on a surface will not harm you until they reach your face. Use a paper towel to lift the gas pump, for instance. Touch light switches and such with your knuckle. Likewise, don’t touch door handles with your hand, especially in places like stores, bathrooms, etc. If handy, use disinfectant wipes on supermarket cart handles. And wash your hands as soon as you can. Cue: public surface; sequence: don’t touch with your hand.

4. Sneeze or cough into a tissue. Lacking a handy tissue, fallback – using the inside of your elbow – works for not spreading whatever you may have in your droplets, but any virus will stay on your clothing until washed. Cue: you are about to sneeze or cough; sequence: do so into a tissue or the inside of your elbow.

And just to be sure, to doubly protect you in case you slip back to an old habit, some entirely new ones:

1. Use hand sanitizers. They need at least 60% alcohol to work – if you can get it at all. If you can get some, keep it handy when you enter your home and in your car for use when you can’t wash your hands.

2. Disposable latex gloves can protect you from picking up the virus when you have to go to public places that might be contaminated – stores, gas stations and the like.

3. Disposable surgical masks won’t protect you from the virus, but can help prevent you from touching your nose or mouth, the two primary routes the virus takes to the lungs – the only place in the body it does its damage.

Good luck and stay healthy!

By Daniel Goleman