The Conundrum of Coronavirus Media Exposure

By Katherine B. Howard, MA, NCSP, LPC

Why do many of us watch the television broadcasts and read the print coverage about the coronavirus outbreak almost compulsively?  We seek information so that we can behave responsibly, in ways that help to maximize the communal good and minimize personal risk. 

Many of us would agree it is important to access data to help us make wise choices. We gravitate to sources of information because we have a basic drive to reinforce our sense of self-efficacy and control over our environment – we want to be able to know something so we can do something – we want to outsmart this determined, aggressive viral invader.

That makes a lot of mental health sense. We try to gain a sense of mastery through knowledge.  We hope to reduce our anxiety by learning what to do and what not to do.

However, if we are not careful, continually accessing the information about the pandemic can increase, rather than decrease, our anxiety.  In our reasonable efforts to stay educated about COVID-19, our anxiety and tension can be significantly exacerbated.

Acknowledging Anxiety Triggers

One reason our anxiety can expand is that we can begin to feel that no matter what we are doing, on a day-by-day basis, it is having little impact. Even though we know intellectually that we are flattening the curve by sheltering in place, it is reported to us daily that the number of infected people and the number of fatalities continue to rise. It is easy to feel discouraged in that, in spite of our social distancing efforts, in spite of the relative isolation we are all enduring, the bad news seems to be unrelenting.

The second reason our anxieties can be intensified is that nothing seems to be solidly true.  That may be because, in our zeal to learn about this novel virus, we are being made privy to a lot of inconclusive data.  Instead of learning about the development of a successful vaccine or effective anti-virals, we are hearing, almost in real time, about the early stages of drug trials, which are not yet “proven.” 

Respectable science based on well-designed studies takes time, but we are desperately eager for a solution. Instead of being optimistic that teams of brilliant researchers are collaborating across the globe, dedicating extraordinary time and talent to this effort, we feel “nothing can be counted on at this point”.  Our impatience has superseded our appreciation of the monumental efforts of scientists who are trying to obtain sound data.  Our impatience is understandable given our fear.

The third reason we feel this un-ease is simply that some of our most respected experts, in full transparency and being authentically ethical, tell us that there is a lot that is unknown about this virus.  While we appreciate their honesty, their frankness can arouse more discomfort in us – even the most knowledgeable among us are not certain.

What Can We Do?

Just as we are encouraged to take the temperature of employees entering workplaces, we may need to take our emotional temperatures (and those of our children) from time to time. 

We can try to increase our conscious awareness of the impact the Coronavirus information is having on us and on our children at a given point in time. Perhaps we can become aware of when we have “enough” information that will enable us to behave responsibly on that particular day. Perhaps we can commence a media diet, during which we decide, very deliberately, what information it is we seek today. 

We can ask ourselves:  “Am I curious about the status of research about vaccines?  Do I seek an uplifting story about someone performing an altruistic deed? Would I be well-served to avoid the graphs and the accounting of persons lost as of today?”  It seems that with a consciousness about the utility of the media information with which we interact each day, we have a chance at controlling our emotions about it and have a chance at helping our children keep some perspective. 

We may be well-served to calibrate our daily intake of information – to try, each day, to find the sweet spot of being responsibly knowledgeable but not needlessly over-whelmed.

Image of the author, Katherine B. Howard

Katherine B. Howard, MA,NCSP, LPC, has been a school psychologist for more than 30 years in both public and private schools. She is currently in her 21st year at Old Trail School in Bath, Ohio serving as school psychologist and director of support services. She has provided training to schools across the country as well as a large number of educational associations and organizations and can be reached at khoward@oldtrail.org.

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