Dr. Heilmayr on Coping with COVID-19


Dietlinde Heilmayr Zooming with students from her home office.

People’s capacity to cope in times of uncertainty vary—no one enjoys facing uncertainty, but some of us can handle it better than others. I, without a doubt, fall into the category of the “others,” which has made the past few weeks really challenging. 

One common response to uncertain times is engaging in efforts to restore control in some capacity. Have any of you been wondering why everyone is stockpiling toilet paper? One reason is that preparing for uncertain times (even if those preparations are illogical or irrational) makes us feel like we have some form of control. That is, stockpiling toilet paper makes people feel like they’re doing something productive to prepare for the unknown. But we’ve seen the negative effects of stockpiling in that it limits everyone else’s ability to meet their basic needs.

In other words, stockpiling isn’t going to give me the relief I seek.

So what am I doing to cope with uncertainty? I’m turning to the scientific evidence! (What else is a social scientist to do?) Unfortunately, the literature to date all converge on one bummer of a point: uncertain times suck! 

Whether it’s waiting for diagnostic health tests, exam results, or seeing how the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. However, there are evidence-based suggestions for how to ease the anxiety we feel in uncertain times; the one I’ve been relying on most lately is finding and embracing moments of awe and wonderment. 

Seeking out feelings of awe and wonderment has helped to ease my anxiety around not knowing how long this will last, how bad this will be, or how this will directly affect me and my loved ones.

Below are some examples of what’s filled me with awe lately:

1. Seeing all of the efforts of people supporting each other has been life-affirming. Many organizations and communities have mobilized to support their most vulnerable populations in ways we haven’t seen in a long time. It’s really beautiful. 

2. Watching all of the acts of solidarity that I can find! If you haven’t watched the videos of the Italian fitness instructor leading an outdoor exercise lesson for people on their balconies, or residents of Spain, Italy, and France applauding healthcare workers from their homes, or the Italians singing to their neighbors from their balconies…Go watch these now! If these don’t inspire awe, I don’t know what will! (And let me know if you find any good ones!) 

3. Music can be awe-inspiring for some people. I’ve been listening to a lot of the musicians who were supposed to perform at South by Southwest—an annual music festival in Texas that was canceled this year. Some of them are awe-inspiring, some not so much, but I have been listening to the best ones on repeat, making sure I suck every bit of wonderment out of them that I can.   

4. I’ve also been looking for beauty in the small things—a sunset, my friends’ cute kid videos, the sound of rain. Focusing on things I often take for granted in the hustle-and-bustle of regular life has also been a good reminder to stay in the present moment.

5. Going outside. That we’re still able to go outside and walk or bike along trails is such a privilege, and I make sure to take advantage of this at least once a day. Seeing everyone else (from 6+ feet away, of course!) enjoying the outdoors fills me with delight.

Of course, I am not without worry. I’m strictly following the CDC’s guidelines so that I can help mitigate and contain the virus in the hopes that we can overcome this challenge sooner rather than later. Still, the moments of wonderment help.

What is filling you with wonderment and awe during these uncertain times?