The 3 Phases Of Coping With COVID-19 Uncertainty (Where Are You?)

Doctor of Clinical Psychology By Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach who received her clinical psychology doctorate from University College London. She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, Business Insider, and elsewhere.
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COVID-19 has played out differently in our lives, but we're united in the human condition of being locked down, social distancing, and feeling concerned about the future. It's clear there's no "normal" to return to; it's a brave new world. 

I've been working with clients and their organizations globally throughout this process, and I've distilled this into three distinct phases we are going through.

Phase 1: Panic

We've all been through that, in varying shades. The panic-buying of toilet paper. The fears of ourselves or our loved ones getting COVID-19 and dying alone, wondering if there are enough ventilators. The sleepless nights, the migraines from over-worrying, the relentless scramble to buy desks because everyone is now sharing the same space 24/7.

What's more, if you have mouths to feed, elderly parents, mortgages to pay lest you lose the house, living hand-to-mouth, businesses and workers to take care of. The list goes on.

Often what we do in this stage can be seen through the lens of impulsivity, driven by a primitive urge to survive. We are preparing for the apocalypse—extrapolating to 50% worse of the worst-case scenario. During this time, rationality barely matters. The primitive part of your brain—the limbic system—kicks in. It remembers and amplifies the negative.

So we hoard eggs and vegetables that will eventually expire. That, and worrying, helps give us that temporary sense of control.

What's not helpful is to shame each other for being worried. We need to have a compassionate understanding of the anxiety-related behavior that has driven our species to survive and take over the surface of planet Earth. Without this, we only feel blame and shame for our behaviors. Or we alienate each other.  

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Phase 2: Process

In 1966, psychologist Richard Lazarus wrote about how, first, we appraise how threatening, challenging, or harmful a situation is. We then evaluate our competence and resources to reestablish some sort of equilibrium between ourselves and the environment. 

To cope, therefore, is to execute our responses, which leads us to the outcome. While we are processing COVID-19, this is exactly what we are doing—coping with the situation, on a day-to-day basis personally and professionally.

Two types of coping.

Research on coping has found there are two primary ways of doing it: Problem-focused coping refers to actions taken to solve the problem or to alter the source of stress. Emotions-focused coping refers to behaviors we undertake to manage emotional distress. Both are useful.

Problem-focused coping is how we adapt what we're physically doing to best manage the situation: Remembering to wash our hands more often, carving our desk space for five people, learning how to unload our groceries safely, and so on. The home is now our office, child-care center, and canteen, on top of everything else.

While we learn to create solutions to our changing reality, we also have to digest the reality of what's going on. Even for those of us with great setups in our home, you'll get upset or frustrated. Sometimes, you'll get excited, like signing up for a dozen online courses or aspiring to bake. Then you may get upset because you didn't follow through.

For some of us, COVID-19 (especially with being quarantined/locked down) may be triggering older stressors and past demons. As you watch death and disease take their toll, there are injustices you'll get upset about as well. There is a lot of unfairness in the world, after all. 

These are human reactions. You are only human, and that's what makes you precious.

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Seeking safety.

Above all, you need to create a foundation of psychological safety—feeling fundamentally safe enough to function. 

So be gentle with yourself. You will move between panic and processing. But you need to do that before you actually pivot. You can't bypass digesting your reality before you can think about your future. 

Phase 3: Pivot

The time will pass anyway. 

There is a world to return to, albeit a different one. We can wallow in panic, making all sorts of excuses, or we can decide what kind of people we want to come out of COVID-19 as. 

When pivoting, here's where you can create a deeper sense of control while partnering with reality. My business mentor Ramit Sethi says each and every one of us needs what he calls a "tripod of stability"—three things in their life they are happy with to keep ourselves stable. From this tripod, we can leapfrog into the freedom to experiment and be spontaneous, or up-level our lives. 

Consider the different aspects of your life you can create stability with:

  • Personally: What is my relationship with my work, time and energy, mind, health, home, self, money, people in my life? Am I living in a way that allows my unique personality to shine, and is my life purposeful? 
  • Existentially: What is my relationship with concepts of spirituality, life and death, personal demons, and my carbon footprint?
  • Professionally: What is my relationship with my career goals and values? What energizes me? And how do I redesign my practices for maximum impact?

With each of the areas, questions to journal upon include:

  • Do I like my relationship with this?
  • Is it sustainable?
  • What can I do differently?
  • What stories do I tell myself that keep things as the status quo?
  • How can I keep working on this and knowing I am on the right track?

Above all, how can we all incorporate the lessons of COVID-19 so we'll never feel so helpless again? 

Spiritual coaches Tay & Val tell me, "Crisis, along with its energies of uncertainty, discomfort, and the extraordinary, shakes up societal norms and everyday routines to reveal enlightening insights into what we value, what's ultimately important, and what legacy we want to leave behind. We're in a way 'forced' to tap into the core truths of who we are, do a stock-take of who we want to become, and pivot accordingly."

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