Dealing With Coronavirus: It’s OK To Be Anxious

Duke mental health experts on ways to deal with isolation and anxiety

Part of the The Briefing: The Impact of COVID-19 Series
Dealing With Coronavirus: It’s OK To Be Anxious
Yan Li, Terrie Moffitt and Timothy Strauman

Right now, it’s OK not to feel OK.

In this unprecedented time of coronavirus-prompted social distancing, it’s unlikely that a person doesn’t encounter some level of anxiety or stress.

But there are ways to approach it, according to three Duke experts who spoke to media Wednesday.

Here are excerpts:


Timothy Strauman, professor of psychology and neuroscience:

“If you’re not feeling unsettled and worried and projecting into the future, then you’re not paying attention. This is a momentous change in our lives that none of us anticipated. It has taken us by surprise. If you’re not feeling distressed, to me, I’d be wondering if you’re just not admitting that to yourself.”

Yan Li, director of counseling and psychological services, Duke Kunshan University

“Don’t judge yourself for feeling the way you are. We’re human beings and we’re in a life-threatening situation. Accept it and be compassionate.”


Terrie Moffitt, professor of psychology

“Some psychologists are comparing the attack of the coronavirus to the bombing attacks on London in World War II. The blitz and the COVID-19 are both scary and isolating. People have to stay home while being reminded constantly of uncontrollable death.”

“And it’s dragging along for weeks and weeks. But the other thing that the London Blitz and the COVID-19 have in common is fostering a sense of solidarity. Everyone is in this together. There’s quite a bit of historical evidence that this kind of ordeal can be good for society.”

“It can slow down our lives and give us a sense of shared purpose. It can provide an opportunity to practice helping others. All these things are good for our mental health.”

“In 1939 in Britain, ahead of the Blitz, Winston Churchill consulted psychologists and was told the air raids and bombings by Germany were going to cause such terror that millions would go insane. The psychiatric hospitals would be overwhelmed with patients. That turned not to be true then, and it’s not true now.”


Terrie Moffitt:

“Social isolation and loneliness are very different things. Social isolation is a physical state -- having to be in a place by yourself. Loneliness is different, it’s a state of mind. It’s possible to feel lonely in a room full of people. It’s possible to feel lonely at your own birthday party.”

“Loneliness can be a state of mind and some people carry it with them to new situations. The reverse is also true. A lot of people who experience social isolation never experience loneliness.”

“It’s important for the public to understand that social isolation doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be lonely and depressed and anxious along with it.”


Timothy Strauman:

“What really is most important to me? What is still under my control? I may not be able to go to the office every day. I may be put into circumstances where my work is interrupted. I can’t see the people I love. It’s very easy for people to feel like they’re failing. ‘I’m letting other people down.’ That kind of thinking, in combination with this isolation and incredible disruption really does render people vulnerable.”

“The message I’d like to get across is that it’s very important to stop and identify what’s most important, what are the things that are and are not under your control. Are there novel ways, different ways that allow you to be the person you want to be … and ride out this crisis?”


Yan Li:

“If you have persistent sadness, anxiety, anger or hopelessness -- all the really vulnerable emotions -- and also lost interest in pleasurable activities and feeling overwhelmed, that’s one of the criteria.”

“Another criteria is significant impairment or change in functions. If you can’t sleep, or sleep is disrupted, or if you can’t get out of bed, or lose appetite or lose concentration or you’re not able to attend to daily hygiene. And also, if you notice impulsive or risky behavior …. thoughts of death, dying or suicide. All those are signs that this is the time to seek professional help.”


Timothy Strauman:

“Anytime we can focus on someone else’s needs, it will take some of the pressure and stress off of us. Building that solidarity is absolutely essential. You really don’t have to look very far to find people in dire circumstances. One of the best preventative measures is simply reaching out to somebody and saying, ‘I’m here for you.’ ”


Yan Li
Yan Li is associate dean of student affairs and director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Duke Kunshan University in China (she is currently in the United States). She is an expert on issues such as multicultural counseling (culture, gender, sexual orientation and other aspects of diversity), psychology of women and clinical supervision.

Terrie Moffitt
Terrie Moffitt is a professor of psychology. Her expertise is in the areas of clinical mental health research, neuropsychology and genomics in behavioral science. She studies depression, psychosis, and addiction. Moffitt is also interested in the consequences of a lifetime of mental and behavioral disorder on processes of aging.

Timothy Strauman
Timothy Strauman is a professor of psychology and neuroscience. His research focuses on the psychological and neurobiological processes that enable self-regulation, including the role of self-regulatory cognitive processes in vulnerability to depression and other disorders, and the impact of treatments for depression.

Duke experts on a variety of other topics related the coronavirus pandemic can be found here