Power on

3 ways to regain a sense of control during the COVID-19 pandemic

"The fundamental issue for people is a loss of control."

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The anxiety of life dominated by COVID-19 feels almost as omnipresent as the news reports detailing every twist and turn of the pandemic. And despite doing the best we can to control the virus, you may feel a certain lack of control as this microscopic threat disrupts life as we know it.

But there are ways to regain some of your power, and still do what you can to control the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Psychological control is a consistent theme in the global COVID-19 conversation.

The Psychological Association of the Philippines suggests not fretting over loss of control as a way to cope with COVID-19-related stress: "focus on what you can control rather than what you cannot control," it recommends. But that's easier said than done.

As David Cates, a clinical psychologist who consults with the at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, (where COVID-19 patients are being treated,) told the American Psychological Association:

"The fundamental issue for people is a loss of control."

For Americans, lack of control may translate to not being able to choose where to go and what to do. That lack of power can feel stifling, says Dana Rose Garfin an assistant, adjunct professor at the University of California, Irvine. Garfin studies trauma, disasters, and health psychology.

"[Freedom of movement] is a foundation of our society," Garfin tells Inverse.

"To have those restrictions in place and have them chipped away one by one, is hard for people, especially in a society where we do have quite high levels of freedom," she says.

In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, the best thing we can do for ourselves and others is to stay put, as scientific research into better containment plans and treatments takes its course.

We can't control that process from within our own homes, but fortunately there are three, psychology-backed ways we can still exercise control, Garfin says.

3. Be in the "same moment"

As live events from Mass to March Madness are cancelled, it can be hard to find opportunities to experience collective moments with other people.

Collective experience may induce a "flow state" — a feeling that you're lost in a larger sense of things, or outside of yourself. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology found that attendees at a Zen Buddhist meditation practice, a Catholic mass, and a collective, non-secular activity all experienced states of "flow," or a sense of communion with the other members.

Taken together, the results suggest when a group member experiences "flow," they tend to feel a "stronger bond with the rest of the members," the researchers say.

"To have those restrictions in place and have them chipped away one by one, is hard for people."

Just because we can't have these experiences in-person doesn't mean we lose the opportunity for them completely. Instead, technology can allow us to still "be in the same moment" with other people, Garfin says.

"A lot of churches, synagogues, mediation groups are all broadcasting live," she says.

"Those are all resources that are available on the internet that I would suggest that people dig into so they can feel a sense of community."

2. Keep a routine

If you're now working from home, your normal routine may be disrupted. To help regain a sense of control, Garfin suggests sticking to your former schedule as much as you possibly can.

So if you typically arrive at 9:00 a.m. to work, that's when you should pull out your home work station and dig in, too. The same is true for non-work activities, too.

If you go to a 5:30 p.m. yoga class, you should also take that time to do yoga or another, similar activity at home.

As schools have closed in select states and cities, there is evidence of parents putting their children on such schedules to maintain a sense of normalcy.

It feels obvious, but as Garfin notes, it can feel strange to keep up routines when everything else feels so abnormal.

"The tendency is to pull away from those things because the anxiety can feel overwhelming for people right now," she says.

But that is all the more reason to lean into a routine, she says.

"Those are things that people have control over. Even in situations where your movement is very limited there are things in your environment that you do have control over. It can make your life still feel productive and meaningful."

3. Maintain good health habits

We know that hand-washing and social distancing can prevent the spread of COVID-19. But we also have control over our general health habits, too.

These basic behaviors include eating healthfully, sleeping enough, and getting enough exercise.

We can also take control of bad ones: Some members of the r/stopsmoking subreddit have taken the rise of COVID-19 as impetus to stop smoking or vaping, which can both have negative effects on the immune system.

Keeping up these habits can provide both routine and serious health benefits — both mentally and physically.

Take sleep, for example. Previous research suggests sleep deprivation can affect the body's immune response. For example, a 2015 study on the common cold found that, in a sample of 164 people, those who slept less than six hours per night were more than four times as likely to catch a cold.

This research is not specific to the coronavirus, but it does suggest that keeping up good health habits is beneficial, overall, to the immune system.

A final note

Ultimately, seeking control comes down to striving for one thing, Garfin says: You need to be as engaged with your life beyond coronavirus as much as possible.

This is especially true if we find ourselves in this situation for a matter of weeks rather than days. Setting yourself up to practice these three good habits may give you the control you need to enable you to stick out social distancing and other infection prevention measures for the long haul.

"I think that the more people can feel like they’re engaged with their lives in whatever capacity they still can, the better they’re going to do over the course of the pandemic," she says.

So take heart: There are still ways to be the master of your own socially-distanced destiny.

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