In response to COVID-19, people around the world have been practicing social distancing, wearing masks in public, and abstaining from travel. Schools and universities, including Barnard, have transitioned to virtual learning, parents have become at-home educators, and the economy has taken an unprecedented turn for the worse. (Read "Break This Down: COVID-19 and the Economy" for insight from Barnard's economics experts.) The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) acknowledges that, even while families and friends work to stay positive and connected in increasingly worrisome times, everyday life has become very stressful.
To help make sense of it all, media outlets have turned to the experts, including Barnard’s president, Sian Leah Beilock, and many faculty members about ways to manage stress levels, stay connected and healthy, and what this pandemic means for society. Below, Barnard’s scholars share an array of insights for how best to cope during the novel coronavirus crisis and how to Feel Well, Do Well @ Barnard.
1. Don’t Stress
President Sian Leah Beilock, Cognitive Scientist
What does cognitive science research say about dealing with stressful situations?
The most important thing to remember is that it’s okay to feel anxious right now. These are uncertain and unprecedented times — no one knows for sure when the need for social distancing will end. And the time and energy many of us are putting toward scanning the headlines for signs that we’ll soon be out of danger doesn’t help our mental health. If you’re nervous and feeling frustrated, you’re not alone.
Any major disruption to our normal routines — especially one that includes loss of control and no definitive end date — is bound to cause uneasiness. When scientists use neuroscientific tools to peek inside the brain, we see that the areas associated with fear and negative emotions are most active right before a big, worrisome event. Humans don’t like uncertainty. We want to know what’s going to happen.
Because our brains are comforted by structure, sticking to a routine can help quell anxiety. When creating a new schedule for yourself, be sure to block out time for activities that give you a sense of accomplishment and help you feel connected with the natural environment as well as other people. When I’m taking a break from work, I like to go for long runs, video chat with old friends, and play math-focused games with my daughter.
It’s easy to feel isolated when in-person contact with others is limited. But don’t lose hope. I’ve seen your strength and resilience. We may be physically separated, but we’re still connected. Every member of our community is here for you.
2. The Nose Knows
John Glendinning, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Biological Sciences
As the nation learns more about COVID-19 symptoms, what should we know about how the virus affects our sense of smell and, ultimately, taste?
A large percent of people infected with COVID-19, 30% to 40%, lose their sense of smell and mistakenly think they also lose their sense of taste. What happens is the virus attaches itself to the odor-sensitive neurons in your nose and damages them. The good news is that once the infection subsides, your body replaces the damaged neurons with healthy neurons. That can take from several weeks to several months. In most cases, when the odor-sensitive neurons return, so does your ability to smell. To enhance recovery, people can do smell training — i.e., purposefully smell a lot of different foods and objects each day. There is also evidence that vitamin A nose drops help the odor-sensitive neurons recover faster.
You’ll know if you’ve lost your sense of smell because the flavor of food will be transformed. Try this self-test: While eating, block your nose for several seconds, then unblock your nose. When you pinch your nose closed, you’ll disable your sense of smell. Do that 10 times and you’ll realize how losing your sense of smell changes the way foods taste.
Read his commentary in Insider from March 20, 2020
3. Let the Kids Collaborate
Tovah Klein, Adjunct Associate Professor, Psychology; Director, Barnard College Center for Toddler Development
What are some best practices that parents of young children can employ to help keep kids calm?
The first thing parents need to be aware of is their own levels of stress and anxiety now. The adult world has been turned on its head, and the child’s world too, but if we take care of ourselves in large and small ways, then we can be steady for young children, who absorb every stress and tone that we’re feeling and the tone of our communication with them and others. So you have to take care of yourself, be kind to yourself, and that may mean longer showers in the morning or finding a small window of time to drink your coffee alone, before your children wake up. Calming yourself enables you to be available for children.
Secondly, children need a simple, straight narrative about what’s going on. This is a new world and these are big words that they are hearing — quarantine and coronavirus — so it helps to demystify them at the child’s level. You could say, “Coronavirus means like a cold or flu, but we’re going to take care of ourselves and stay healthy, and if we get sick, Mommy and Daddy will take care of you. But there are some people, like Grandma and Grandpa, who can get very sick, so everyone is working hard to make sure people don’t get this funny-sounding thing called the coronavirus.”
The final point is that we’ve all lost our routines. Children have lost daycare or school, playing outside or at the playground, and seeing friends. All of that has changed, so think about putting in a new rhythm of the day. We talk about a schedule, but it doesn’t have to be rigid; it does have to bring some predictability to the day. Getting up around the same time each day, having activities for the morning, like making and playing with Play-Doh, lunch, a nap or quiet time, another activity, regular mealtimes where you may cook together, and sleep. You can make a simple routine chart with a child, but keep it simple. Children thrive on knowing what’s next. It also makes the days flow better.
4. Mind Your Mindfulness
Tara Well, Associate Professor, Psychology
How can we use meditation to better manage our emotions and attention through the crisis?
Many people are experiencing an uptick in anxiety now. When we feel anxious, we tend to breathe shallowly and be less aware of how our body feels, which only increases our stress.
In meditation, you create a time and place to slow down and be curious about what is happening with your breathing, body, and emotions. Slow, deep breathing signals your body to relax and settle in with yourself. I recommend three-part breathing in which you expand your diaphragm, rib cage, and collarbone as you breathe in, and gently contract your collarbones, rib cage, and diaphragm as you breathe out. Be aware of your body sensations. Feel the air brush against your cheek, the texture of your clothes against your skin, and the pressure of your body against the chair.
Once you are calmer, you may become more aware of your emotions. Meditation, and particularly mirror meditation, in which you sit with yourself with no goal other than to be present, can help you manage your feelings. Gazing at yourself — not as an exercise in vanity or self-criticism — and being curious about how you are feeling, can be transformative. Giving yourself time every day, at least 10 minutes, and checking in with how you are feeling can be part of your self-care routine and a reminder to love yourself and to be there for yourself no matter what.
5. Remember the Reason for Distancing
Michael G. Wheaton, Assistant Professor, Psychology
What are some mental and physical hacks to help people cope with the current health crisis and social isolation?
These are stressful times for everyone, and there is good evidence to suggest that the social isolation involved in self-quarantine can be particularly associated with poor outcomes. There was a recent article published in The Lancet that reviewed the psychological effects of quarantine, and they found negative psychological effects, including depression, confusion, and anxiety. One finding was that quarantine had less severe negative effects when the rationale for it was clearly articulated and made an appeal to altruism. This means that the period we are going through may be made more bearable if we remind ourselves of the reasons why it is important to engage in these measures and remember that we are making sacrifices for the better health of the community.
Read Wheaton’s recent “Break This Down: Crisis Coping” interview