How to smile under a mask: staying optimistic through the pandemic


Anton Johnson

The pandemic is still going strong, but so are you. Graphic by Anton Johnson/The Gateway.

There’s a calm before the storm moment that comes right before a panic attack. I’ll see the news that sets it off, maybe regarding the record coronavirus death rates in Nebraska. But at first, I think this time will be fine. I already knew things have been getting bad. I keep up with the news regularly. This doesn’t change what was already happening. I’ll be okay.

But then my heart starts picking up pace. Okay, just breathe. I’ve had panic attacks before. My stomach feels upset, but that’s not a big deal. Then my throat starts to dry up, so I get a glass of water. It goes the wrong pipe and I start coughing. The glass of water didn’t end up helping me very much.

And now it’s getting hard to breathe. I think. I don’t know, I’m not sure what shortness of breath really feels like. It’s probably just allergies. But shortness of breath is one of those common COVID symptoms. So is coughing, and do I have a fever? I feel warm.

It’s really frustrating that panic attacks and COVID have overlapping symptoms, especially when COVID is what’s causing the panic attacks. And it’s really frustrating that I could have COVID with only mild or even no symptoms and still spread it. And it’s insanely frustrating to be a hypochondriac right now.

Everyone’s dealing with some hypochondria, or health anxiety, right now. But I was doing it before it was cool. There was the 2017-2018 flu season, which was in the news for being especially deadly. I remember wishing that mask-wearing would become normalized in the U.S. Unfortunately, I seem to have gotten my wish.

My anxiety got exponentially worse when I heard of NBA player Kyle Korver’s brother, who had passed away suddenly from an unknown illness. He was a young, relatively healthy guy. All of a sudden I was having panic attacks several times a week, and my life seemed to fall out of my control.

Eventually, I considered the chances of a worldwide pandemic. Experts were well aware that we weren’t ready for one back then. I knew I wasn’t ready for it. The experts were right, but I was wrong. I learned how to deal with the anxiety, and it’s better now than it was then. This is how I did it:


Read the news, not Twitter

We all like to rip on the “mainstream media,” and sometimes that’s fair. But that never means you should fill that void with baseless speculation from whatever viral post is going around on social media.

A survey from Pew Research Center found that 18% of Americans primarily get political news from social media. That group is also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories about the pandemic, which we all know has become very politicized.

Viral posts towards the beginning of the pandemic claimed that COVID-19 had already spread in the U.S. in November and December, explaining unexplained flu-like symptoms from that time. However, this was largely debunked.

These types of posts go viral because they invoke fear, which is well-known as a strong motivator. Fear also affects our judgement and how well we assess risk. Social media incentivizes quick and emotional reactions to things, not credible news.

Social media isn’t always good for you, and most Americans would agree with me. You can stay informed without Twitter.


Double check everything

Your ability to judge whether or not a source is credible might not be as good as you think it is. Since the 2016 election, mass communication experts have used the “third-person effect” to understand how people react to fake news.

A study by researchers from the University of South Carolina in 2018 found that people generally believe that they are better at discerning fake news than others, i.e. a third person. They also found a similar trend between in-groups and out-groups: Democrats believed they were less susceptible than Republicans and vice versa.

Everyone generally overestimates their own abilities, which is why it’s important to be thorough if you come across information that gives you anxiety. Anxiety can make you believe the worst or jump to conclusions even when it’s not logical. This is known as catastrophizing.

The reality is that COVID-19 is here, and it can be deadly especially to vulnerable populations. But if you follow CDC guidelines and have faith in actual experts, you can ease your anxiety and keep you and your loved ones safe.


Take care and be easy on yourself

There’s an episode of the cartoon Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy, where one of the characters is excessively irritable and emotional, and the others have to figure out what’s going on. At the end of the episode, a pebble falls out of his shoe and all of a sudden he’s fine.

The pandemic is a big pebble in the shoes of people across the country, and it’s had a larger impact for some than others. But you can work on getting out some of those smaller pebbles: sleep, diet and exercise. It might be cliche, but a little can go a long way.

In 1978, Dr. Robert Butler, who founded the National Institute on Aging, famously said “If exercise could be packed into a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed, and beneficial, medicine in the nation.”

You don’t need to become a vegan fitness junkie to see improvements–in fact, over-doing it can end up doing more harm than good. Just going for a quick walk every once in a while and cutting back on sugar can do a lot for your body and mind.


Understand what has gotten better

Despite the continued rise in cases, we’re in a better position than we were at the beginning of the pandemic. For starters, we know more than we did back then.

Kathy Katella said in an article for Yale Medicine that what we know has changed rapidly through the months since COVID was introduced in the U.S. and that experts are constantly working to  improve treatments.

Death rates are lower now than earlier in the summer. Part of that is because of testing availability: more asymptomatic people or people with no symptoms are testing positive. But it’s also because hospitals know how to treat it better than they did and because of increased awareness.

In what will hopefully become a trend, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced that once a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, it will be free for all Nebraskans.