Feeling COVID Anxiety? Try These Simple Strategies
“Once I describe the emotion I’m feeling, I can make sense of it. I can move past it.”
Sheryl Sandberg is chief operating officer at Facebook, the bestselling author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and co-author of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. Adam Grant is a world-renowned organizational psychologist, the top-rated professor at Wharton, a curator for the Next Big Idea Club, and the bestselling author of Originals, Give and Take, and Option B with Sheryl Sandberg.
Sheryl and Adam recently sat down for a Facebook Live conversation about the surprising upside of guilt, and how we can all calm our anxious minds during the global pandemic.
This excerpt has been edited and condensed. To watch the full conversation, click the video below.
Sheryl: [Someone in the audience asked]: “Objectively, I know I’m so lucky to be safe and healthy, but I’m still experiencing daily anxiety. How do I cope with needing support, but also knowing that others have it worse than me?”
Adam: This seems like a natural point for Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion.
Sheryl: I love her. There’s a good story that you told me—there’s a woman who got divorced, and she went on a date. She hadn’t dated in forever, but she got her hair done, got all dressed up, went out, and showed up. And the guy walked out after ten minutes.
So a friend said to her, “Sure he did. You’re boring, and you have big thighs.” …Of course, her friend didn’t really say that. No friend would say that to anyone, but she said it to herself. We say things to ourselves that we would never in a million years say to a friend.
Self-compassion is so important, so when you catch yourself treating yourself badly—“I shouldn’t feel anxious. I have so much. Why am I so nervous?”—what would you say to a friend? You would say, “Of course you feel that way.”
Adam: Yeah, I think self-compassion is such a good answer to this experience that so many of us have with beating ourselves up: “I shouldn’t be anxious. I know how lucky I am and yet, I’m still feeling that way.” What psychologists find over and over again is that it’s actually helpful just to name the emotion we’re feeling. That helps us accept it—the emotion can then move through us, or we gain a little bit of control over it, or maybe some understanding of it.
“We say things to ourselves that we would never in a million years say to a friend.”
One of my favorite experiments is with people who are afraid of spiders. It’s not so easy to cure someone of their arachnophobia, to just distract them away from it, because there’s still a hairy tarantula in the room. It’s not so easy to get them to reframe it and say, “Oh, well spiders keep us safe!” What does work is, you have them to name their fear, to label the anxiety they experience. Then over the next week or so, they feel less physiological stress—you can actually see it in their cortisol levels. It’s a sense of, “Okay, once I describe the emotion I’m feeling, I can make sense of it. I can move past it.” I think we should all be a little bit kinder to ourselves, and maybe a little more accepting of our emotions.
Sheryl: What is the psychological impact when you think about what could be worse? Is that more of a negative when you’re at your lowest?
Adam: The idea behind imagining how things could be worse is to think about an alternate timeline where you experience your life differently. You put yourself in the shoes of the “you” who had things worse, and for a moment, that feels horrible. It’s like watching a really sad movie. But then at some point, you step out of it and realize, “You know, I feel a little fortunate not to be that version of me, which could very well have existed.”
There was an unusual practice, I think in the 1600s. It was common for people to want to be told extremely depressing stories—the worst tearjerkers you could possibly think of. If you look at what historians have brought together on this, the apparent reason is that people wanted to be prepared, to know what depression felt like, so that it wasn’t a completely foreign experience. That way, they were ready to deal with it. I think that’s a little bit of what imagining how things could be worse is supposed to do.
Sheryl: “How do you deal with feelings of guilt for not doing more?”
Adam: I’ve had a hard time with this one. I’ve always enjoyed being helpful, but I don’t feel like my ways of being helpful are that urgent right now. I’m not a medical professional—I’m not in a position to suddenly discover a vaccine. So I’ve actually felt pretty useless during this period.
But you immediately stepped up—you did a lot for fundraising for food banks, and you’ve worked hard to raise awareness about resilience. How did you get past that guilt?
Sheryl: So, this isn’t just a health crisis—it’s an economic crisis, and food is a crisis too. 22 million kids get meals at school, but the schools are closing and families are not working. I’ve been a fundraiser and a volunteer for the local food bank here for a long time, so I went to the largest donors we had, and together we donated much more than we had before. That felt good. I also told my children, “When you’re feeling sad and lonely, call your grandma. She’s home alone—call her, and you will feel better.”
I think the other one is self-compassion; we have to let ourselves be human. No one is helping every minute, or taking care of their children every minute. No one with a teenage boy has prevented every video game from being played. Lots of video games are being played, and that’s fine. We have to give ourselves permission to be human while also stepping up to our responsibility to do more.
Adam: You just made me think that the typical response to guilt is completely backward—I don’t think we should be trying to eliminate it. When we feel shame, we feel like, “I’m a bad person.” Then we want to crawl into a hole, or maybe even attack whoever is making us feel ashamed.
But guilt has the opposite effect for most people. Guilt is the sense that, “I did a bad thing,” or “I disappointed other people,” or “I fell short of my own standards.” It actually motivates us to want to do more. I think Erma Bombeck put it best when she said, “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.” It motivates us to be more giving, so maybe we should lean into the guilt. Is that a legitimate form of leaning in?
Sheryl: I think it is, because it makes us motivated.
Okay, here’s another question: “I’m grieving the loss of my mom while simultaneously dealing with isolation from social distancing. What can I do to feel less alone in my grief?”
“Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.”
My heart goes out to everyone in this situation. We have these structures around grief and loss, and they’re usually about coming together. We come together for services and burials, but we can’t do that right now.
But I think we can try to redo those structures—I think using video to have services is good. Writing down stories is good. I think with grief, at least as I experienced it, it’s important to let it happen, because it’s just going to be there. It takes time, but it gets better.
Adam: Good question—I think we should probably plan a little bit less. I spend a lot of my time studying work, and a lot of people have come and said, “I had high hopes that at least I was going to be more productive during this time, but I feel like I get interrupted every three or four minutes, trying to juggle work and online schooling with my kids.”
So I think that we should probably lower our expectations a little bit. I don’t think we can plan as much as we did before, and it’s a form of self-compassion to say, “You know what? My productivity is probably going to go down. My ability to follow a schedule is going to suffer. I might even be late a little bit more often.” We should obviously be more understanding of others, but also of ourselves when that happens.
Sheryl: “I know some people who are in good positions relatively speaking, but who are still struggling quite a bit with anxiety and isolation. How can I encourage them to focus on everything they have to be grateful for without minimizing the pain they’re feeling?”
Adam: One of the mistakes a lot of us make is called the “righting reflex,” which is the instinctive response we have to want to make things right. But that’s not what people want. I had a mentor, a clinical psychologist, whose wife would often remind him that despite the fact that he did this for a living, she wanted sympathy, not solutions. The first thing we need to do is validate what people are feeling: “It’s okay to be anxious. That’s completely normal. It’s part of the human condition, especially right now.”
“We have all faced difficulty in our lives, and we can relearn those lessons and apply them to the crisis today.”
And then, I don’t think people need to be told to feel grateful. I think they need to be encouraged to think about, “Who are the people that matter to me?” One exercise I’ve been doing over the past few weeks is picking one person every day who I appreciate—but who I haven’t told enough how important they are to me—and I’ve been reaching out. It could be a text message, or an email, or a phone call. I’m trying to lift somebody else’s day, but of course, it also makes me more grateful for having them in my life. So that’s a small step that more people could take.
Sheryl: I think that’s right. Another question: “If we don’t feel comfortable consoling someone who just had a loss, should we anyway? Sometimes I feel like I’m just in the way, and an obligation for the other person to address while they’re grieving.”
You never, ever offend anyone by showing up. You text and say, “I’m here if you want to talk, but no pressure.” Hardly anyone could take that badly. Because of the research we did, I know so many people who have complained about their friends not being there. I don’t remember a single person saying, “My friends showed up too much.”
Don’t force them to talk, like, “How does it feel to have lost your mom?” But rather, “I’m here. This is a crazy, hard time. I’m going to ask if you want to talk every day. You don’t ever have to say yes, but I want you to know I’m here.” I think that works.
Last question: “I find myself worrying about hardship I may face in the future. Is it possible to be resilient through hard things that haven’t happened yet?”
Adam: One of the great gifts that human beings have is the ability to time travel—mentally, at least. Right now I think it’s really hard to fast forward and imagine the future, and one of the ways we get around that is to rewind to the past. Think about hardships you’ve faced before, and ask yourself, “How did I overcome them, or at least persevere in the face of them?” Some things can’t always be solved—they just have to be experienced.
I think we don’t learn enough from our lessons of resilience. We have all faced difficulty in our lives, and we can relearn those lessons and apply them to the crisis today. Maybe that makes us a little less anxious about what’s to come.