Managing Our Anxieties of Influence in an Age of #COVID19

Managing Our Anxieties of Influence in an Age of #COVID19

This article is about my observations of the anxieties about being able to influence such a huge problem as a global pandemic like #COVID19. You know, that really overwhelming thing that the majority of reasonable people are looking to the best experts to help with right now, and following their advice. Which is why you’re super-anxious about your 79-year-old great aunt who thinks just running to Target for a few things rather than getting delivery is still a very normal and obvious thing to do. As I go through I’ll be incorporating some practical action items to help manage our own stress, both by channeling our stress into helping to make things better (including by persuading and educating the influenceable as much as possible!) and by reducing our stress enough to keep our immunities strong going forward.

Since it’s what I study and teach, this blog post will obviously be written from a stress, trauma, and conflict communication perspective, and especially on ways we can take care of our mental and physical health while helping the situation as much as we can. I previously wrote about healthy responses to the current global pandemic here and here.


I have a couple of degrees in English before I got my PhD in Communication. But this article has nothing to do with literary theorist Harold Bloom’s theories about the anxieties of authors about influence.

Instead, this is about all of our anxieties about feeling the need to fix everything in the world regarding the current COVID-19 pandemic and our anxieties about whether others will do their parts.

Major Fears about Social Loafing

In the scholarship of group communication, we call those people who don’t do their part in a task-oriented group social loafers. In short, those of us who are paying attention and taking this seriously and have people in vulnerable groups at stake are terrified millions of people will leave us in the lurch. This is some high-key and well-founded fear of social loafing, friends.

Because all of this is a huge set of stressors, for good valid reasons. We’ll get into how that works and how best you can harness and work through that stress energy your body is both helpfully and unhelpfully producing to help you rise to the occasion.

Over a Week into My Isolation—and Much of the US Is Settling into the Same

But before I get too deep, let’s do a bit of a state of the situation. Since I previously wrote about #COVID19 here and here, things have progressed into a full-blown crisis both in the US and around the world. Now that my university where I teach has shifted to online classes for the semester with an extended two-week spring break first, I’ve been practicing extreme social distancing for over a week now, as have so many reasonable and empathetic folks in this country who are able.

Global Pandemic as a Major Threat

So here’s the thing: this global pandemic is presenting a threat. A genuine threat. We’re 10 days into the WHO having declared this a pandemic, and doctors from inside the United States are reporting the intensity and shocking nature of this disease and our lack of preparedness for it.

Those of us who are spending a lot of time staying informed as well as possible are terrified and doing our best to follow protocols and shelter in place as much as humanly possible. The threat is causing our bodies to give out stress reactions that offer us energy to do so.

Fears of Denialism and Poor Education/Slow Shifts in Habits

But of course the problem is that in order to fight thing thing, we really need EVERYONE on board. And we have both bungling and denialist and waffling leaders (I talked about the evil of this before!) as well as others we know who just aren’t adjusting fast enough or recognizing the seriousness of the situation.

The Anxieties of Influence

This leads to what I’m calling the anxieties of influence in this situation for those of us who recognize the intensity of the threat and are listening to the expert opinions that make it clear our leaders have been bungling the situation in ways that put millions of people at risk, including and especially our healthcare workers who are working to save us.

The Different Stress Responses and #COVID-19

See, our stress energy, for many of us, makes us want to fight the problem and/or to enact flight from the problem. It also makes some of us want to freeze from overwhelm, and to tend and befriend. And there are good and bad versions of all of those things, as adapted to the current situation.

As we consider this problem, it’s important to note that the stress energy our bodies are all producing in spades is both completely normal and not itself actually the problem.  

Stress energy, after all, is designed to help us rise to the occasion. But sometimes it gets channeled in ways that are debilitative to ourselves and others.

Channeling Our Moral Disgusts Rightly as They Arise

It’s important to note that, as we construct our moral disgusts (I talked about this previously in a series starting here) in this situation, that people who are just exhibiting stress responses that are unhelpful, but are ultimately open to following recommended procedures, aren’t the primary problem.

Nor are the people who have survival needs and are taking carefully calculated and well-strategized risks.

Nor are the people who need occasional breaks, and are doing so in a way that hurts as few people as possible by following protocols as carefully as possible.

People with Debilitative Channeling of Their Stress Responses are a Problem

The primary problems are those who are willfully refusing to listen and are actually endangering lives in the process. Often they are either shutting down the idea that #COVID19 could be a threat, or channeling the stress to run away from the perception that this disease could have major effects—which is a natural stress response, but an intensely counterproductive one that in this case especially could hurt both those people and others.

And THIS is the huge frustration—because we can’t healthily control others. And others are often working against the common good. And they could genuinely be hurting people, all because of debilitative stress responses and other forms of denial.

Let’s Talk about Hugging (I Miss It Soooo Much—and I’m NOT a Hugger!)

To make it worse, our own natural stress responses that would be healthy in the short term, or in other situations, are often working in ways that are in danger of sabotaging us.

Take hugging, for instance. If you’re isolated with someone and already all up in the same space, there’s no reason not to hug that person. And hugs and cuddles between people whose bodies find each other safe can improve the immune system in a lot of ways, and thus help keep us sane and protect us from danger.

But for those who are living alone? Our tend and befriend instincts are telling many of us that we need this thing, and yet are simultaneously processing the danger of people standing too close to one another.

A Need to Grieve—and Let Each Other Grieve

This kind of conflicting message is the kind of thing that we need to stop and let ourselves grieve over, friends—at least those of us in isolation. We need that grief to work through for us to keep going with less trauma out of the situation, which is likely to give many people around the world trauma from the stress of it over and beyond the immediate effects from this particular disease.

In addition to grieving, another problem I referenced above is that our own and others are often doing unproductive things with our stress energies.

How to Channel Our Stress Responses into Making Things Better

Here are some ideas and tips about how to helpfully channel and manage our stress responses toward helpful and productive solutions to various pieces of the puzzle and encourage others to do the same. If you need Assertive Spirituality tips for any of the following, especially the ones about channeling our stress energies into persuading the persuadable, please do sign up for our email newsletter to get the free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Trolls”—I’ll be providing instructions about how to get that at the end of this blog post.

Anyway, these are helpful ways to keep channeling our stress responses into what we CAN DO while understanding that none of us can do this all, and certainly not all at once, however much we would like to:

  1. Educate Yourself and Willing-to-Listen Denialists and Keep a Steady Flow of Info to Those Who Need Up to Date Info to Stay Put. It is hard to listen to the news these days, and it can be overwhelming, as I’ll discuss in the next section, but for those who are willing and able to keep up the dissemination of real information and fight the spread of unhealthy info, let’s keep it up, please. Remember that experts are still learning and the situation is still evolving, so don’t expect them to have single truths that will be true for all time.
    (And those with high anxiety, remember we all have the ability to turn away from news feeds or practice other calming techniques for a time, as described below, as needed! Please do rather than stopping your friends from keeping up and helping others with the info!)
  2. Keep Calling Your Governmental Representatives to Keep Them Accountable for Healthier Forms of Response. Those of us who are able NEED to keep this activity up as much as humanly possible. While we’re at it, keep working to sort through and emphasize common good things reaching toward our elections of healthier leaders for us. Hold our candidates accountable as well.
  3. Find Ways to Support Health Care Workers and Other Essential Workers and Their Families. Do you know a doctor? Text them to see if they have enough food. You can also, in a WWI/WWII-like “home front” effort, sew masks for healthcare workers right now. There are lots of other ideas out there too, but the most important thing is to STAY HOME. This has been medical workers’ biggest requests. (Also that we keep contacting our governmental representatives to ask for more supplies and tests—see #2 above!)
  4. Work to Persuade People, as Well as You’re Able, Toward Healthier Forms of Action. Look for evidence, emphasize the wins for everyone, and make sure you understand their point of view as you seek to persuade them toward better action, and grieve the ways mutually beneficial action may not be possible. Because you can’t healthily persuade everyone. (Remember it’s okay to set boundaries with people if they’re causing you undue stress.)
  5. Look Around/Ask Around Where in Your Community You Can Meet Needs. Do this in a socially distanced way, of course, as much as possible. But there are things everyone can do. And remember both humor and entertainment are helpful in these times—not for everyone or in the same proportions, but they do help a lot of people. Especially check in with people who own small businesses who must do in-person business and their employees as well as vulnerable populations (and, as you’re able, advocate for them!)
  6. Get Creative about Ways to Solve Your Problems in Ways that Meet the Common Good. I talked about this more last week. Deal with your shame spirals and help others take care of theirs. Remember that we don’t live in a zero-sum world entirely, and frame things for yourself in ways that are helpful.

Why We Need to Also Make Ourselves Slow Down at Times to Help the Situation Best

Another problem is that stress energy is designed best to help us face shorter term threats. In cases like this where the threat is long and sustained, if we don’t channel and/or lower our stress occasionally it’s going to be literally making us sick through the course of the emergency. In short, our ongoing stress energies, no matter how well channeled they may be, need to have the excess stress drained off occasionally.

This is crucial so we can keep our immune systems up for the good of ourselves and others, since lowered immunity is NOT what we need right now, any more than we need a bunch of exhausted and fraying people getting on each other’s nerves in homes.

Some Tips for Calming Our Stress Responses a Bit

So here are just a few suggestions to calm our bodies’ nervous systems:

  1. Get out and walk and/or hike if it is available in your area. Even for those that are used to a lot of time at home, the benefits of outdoors time go up when you can’t have other non-essential outdoor activities. Just try to keep your distance from other people and don’t touch things with your hands while you’re out there if you can help it (no playground equipment!). But yes, cardio is key to get out both the fight and flight responses, and the Japanese recommend “forest bathing” as a prescription to lower stress for a reason. I’ve talked to friends about doing hikes together but with 6-10 feet between us as well.
  2. Have socially distanced communication with others. Do more phone calls and video chats these days. Text friends while watching the same thing from a distance. But remember that seeing people in person isn’t itself a problem either. I had a great convo on opposite ends of my porch with a friend earlier this week, and saw a great story of a guy who sat outside his dad’s assisted living picture window daily and talked to him on the phone. We just need creative ways to be together, and that will help us to get better at overcoming the hug impulse when it’s wise. It’s important to find healthy ways of working out that tend and befriend stress response—healthy social support has been shown to repair the damage that debilitative stress can do to our bodies.
  3. Moderate Your Intake of News/Social Media When You Need To. When doing this, please keep in mind that you yourself have agency over this, but that it’s less than helpful to try to control others working out their stress responses in helpful ways. For instance, if you yourself feel the urgency enough and your anxiety is overwhelming you, feel free to make a list of helpful media resources, but don’t ask friends that are working to inform denialists and support those who are seeking to persuade denialists or find it comforting to be up on the facts not to do those things.
  4. Mindfulness apps and meditations and free online yoga practices. I personally use Sanvello, for a small fee per month, and Stop Breathe and Think as mindfulness apps, and Yoga with Adriene free videos on YouTube for at-home yoga practices (she has one for most topics, including for those who are sick, PTSD, and gut health. Very useful!).
  5. Your Own: and Remember Not All the Same Practices Will Work for Everyone, and That’s Okay. Use your agency to negotiate with others if your practices or theirs are causing conflict, and let them influence you as much as is reasonable, and expect that of them, but don’t try to control one another to need all the same ways to either channel or reduce stress.

Caveats and Such

There are many more things I haven’t been able to include here. Know that there are lots of places to work through this situation in helpful ways. As much as we can work together to recognize each other’s stress responses and working to help ourselves and others out as collaboratively as possible, it will help in the long run.

Finding Meaning to Our Actions Decreases Stress Too!

Be well and as safe as possible, friends! And know that however small your part may seem, it is valuable. It’s hard to see staying home and maintaining your mental and physical health as a heroic act, or sewing a few masks, but it’s exactly what doctors and other experts are asking we do for good reason. So the more we can both channel our stress and reduce it, and grieve out this situation as each of us is able, the better off we all are.

How All of This Can Work Together for the Common Good

After all, while one wise post I just saw today was pointing out the impact of (1) the loss of life and health from the disease itself and (2) the economic apocalypse, we also need to be working hard to avoid a huge wave of physical and mental illness and trauma from this pandemic.

The quick changes in lifestyle that are required themselves may have a devastating impact for too many. Applying the types of things I just mentioned will help lessen THAT impact while helping out with the other two apocalypse-sized problems as much as possible. And that is likely to include fighting our own inner battles and finding our own and others’ wellness to be a bigger concern than simply the lack of transmission of germs.

A Reminder: Stress Responses Themselves Are There to Help Us—They’re Just Not Perfect at It

Finally, remember, the stress responses themselves are not the problem. If possible, don’t stop others from coping mechanisms! Do, however, push back assertively at denialists and those who are practicing unhealthy responses of various types. And if you don’t have the energy, at least socially distance yourself from them.

Just remember those around you aren’t the enemy, and that we often, honestly, DO have more than we need in lots of situations, but our neurobiologies are often trained by a culture of wealth to think that things like toilet paper are a matter of survival. They really aren’t. If you need backups because you’re out, there are lots of online sources to look into that…

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap, toward a healthier world for us all, while moderating and channeling our own stress responses as well as possible. We can do this thing.

More Resources, as Promised

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Managing Our Anxieti…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 13 min