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How this psychologist suggests we manage COVID-19 fears

As cancellations, closures and medical concerns within the U.S. and across the globe suspend our daily routines, fear and anxiety also rise. It’s difficult to avoid worrying, but it can be helpful to understand when fear is actually counterproductive to wellbeing. Jeffrey Brown talks to David DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University who studies periods of stress and trauma.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a time of enormous disruption in America and all around the world, as many of our daily routines are being upended.

    Beyond the cancellations, the medical questions and financial turmoil, there is fear and many other concerns.

    Jeffrey Brown takes a closer look at that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The thoughts are unavoidable, whether you're eager to get a test, seeing the empty shelves at the grocery store, concerned for your children and loved ones, watching events unfold elsewhere.

    David DeSteno studies emotions in times of stress and trauma. He's a professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston.

    So, welcome to.

    Emotions are clearly high. Knowledge, arguably, is low. What does that combination add up to in the behavior you're seeing now?

  • David DeSteno:

    Unfortunately, it's a perfect storm for us right now.

    The reason we have emotions is to help us come to adaptive decisions very rapidly. But when those emotions are miscalibrated or when the context is wrong, or especially now, when we have few clear facts at our fingertips, those emotions can start filling in the blanks, and what would be an adaptive response can really go awry.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But here we have a situation where the reason for fear is real, tests are hard to come by, people are getting sick. They see what's going on in other countries.

    You're not suggesting we can avoid that or should avoid that?

  • David DeSteno:

    No, by no means.

    You know, there is clearly a reason for fear and anxiety right now. The problem is, a lot of us don't think like virologists or epidemiologists and have the information at hand.

    And so that gives more room for our fear to fill in the blank. So, for example, when you feel fear, it makes anything that seems threatening more likely to happen. So, if I sneeze and I feel afraid, one sneeze, I'm much more likely to believe that's due to coronavirus.

    And the more I think about it, the more opportunities there are to fill in the blanks. Hmm. Was I really six feet away from that guy who was in the store next to me today?

    And so yes, please do what Dr. Fauci says. There is reason for concern. Seek medical treatment if you have it. But I think what we're getting into is a spiral of fear that is leading people to engage in responses that aren't very helpful.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, so make it as concrete as you can, even in your own life.

    If — stocking up at the grocery store, making decisions about where to take your children, whether to take them out, whether to see other people, how do you balance those kinds of fears and decisions to go on with life?

  • David DeSteno:

    I think the best way to do it right now is to — when you feel fear, you're motivated to act. But most of us, as I said, don't know the best things to do.

    And so this is really a situation where expertise is warranted. So, do what your public health officials, your provider tells you, what Dr. Anthony Fauci says.

    The trick is to not obsess about that fear, because it will begin to make you second-guess everything you're doing. And it may lead you to actions that are actually more problematic.

    As we're seeing, if there's a run on supplies, if there's a run on face masks, what we're doing is getting into a situation where single actions that may not benefit us that much are going to end up causing collective harm.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, just in our last minute, you used the word obsessed or obsession.

    And I can't help but think of the phones we all carry, the differences from this national moment to others that you and I are familiar with, 9/11 or 2007 crash or other periods, where the information comes so much faster.

  • David DeSteno:


  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And we're taking it all in, and not sure what to do with it.

  • David DeSteno:

    That's right.

    And now the problem — so that's another thing about emotions. Emotions are very contagious. And that serves a purpose. So if you or I — if you and I are talking like this, and, all of a sudden, I went, ah, that would be a signal to you that I'm feeling fear to something I saw behind you. You would feel fear and be able to act accordingly.

    But now, because of social media, if anybody's fear starts to get out of whack, too intense, it becomes a cycle where that is spread very rapidly, very quickly.

    And, again, if we don't have rational facts, if we don't have the information at our fingertips, it can become an upward spiral of fear very rapidly.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, in a word, check your device, but not too often, not stay on it? What are you doing?

  • David DeSteno:


    Well, exactly, because what happens is, the media is going to show you the worst-case scenarios. And it's important. And I'm not saying we shouldn't understand what's going on.

    But you're seeing the worst-case scenarios and everybody who is sick. What they're not showing you is everybody who's doing OK, with milder symptoms of the virus or not having it.

    And so you believe it is much more prevalent. Now, I don't mean to be complacent. Please don't be complacent. Follow the advice of the public health officials.

  • Jeffrey Brown:


  • David DeSteno:

    When you're seeing this over and over again, what you're seeing is the worst-case scenarios.

    And our brains evolved in a world without social media and smartphones. And what we saw around us was this clear example of what was actually happening. Now we're getting curated to us some of the worst things going on.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, David DeSteno of Northeastern University, thank you very much.

  • David DeSteno:

    Thank you, Jeffrey.

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