In this article, I discuss how you can cope better with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic by appreciating positives while acknowledging and acting on negatives.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes.

While watching a special coronavirus episode of Dr. Phil, I was struck by the excellent advice a psychiatrist guest offered on how to cope with the stress of the pandemic. Among the guest’s advice was to focus on the positives at the start of the day and at the end of the day. This entailed beginning the day by making it a point to look for the positives followed by a bedtime routine of thinking of the positives you encountered throughout the day.

The psychiatrist’s advice led me to focus in this article on the soundness of the strategy of coping with a negative situation by noticing the positives. In the following sections, I will discuss why this strategy is effective and how you can use it to cope with the stress of the pandemic.

Benefits of noticing the positives

Noticing the positives in the midst of a negative situation is often misunderstood as ignoring negative information which should be paid attention to. This criticism is akin to that levelled against the Roman emperor Nero for fiddling while Rome was burning.

In actuality, noticing the positives does not mean that one must do so while failing to pay attention to negative information which has facts to support it. Instead, this ‘notice the positives’ strategy entails also noticing negative information and acting on it if circumstances warrant.

Unfortunately, some people notice only the negative information in a difficult situation. When they fail to balance this by also noticing the positives, the negative effects of the situation on one’s mood are exacerbated. These negative effects become even worse if, in addition to noticing only the negatives, the person has a negatively skewed view of the negatives in the situation. With the coronavirus, this may take the form of overestimating the likelihood of contracting the virus and the consequences to be suffered if one were to contract it and/or overestimating the negative effects of the pandemic on one’s finances.

Noticing the positives in a negative situation helps your stress to decrease and your mood to improve because you are viewing the situation in proper perspective rather than dwelling on the negativity. In a similar manner, limiting the amount of time you are exposed to the negative information will also help your mood by balancing this with time in which you engage in activities which have a positive effect on your mood.

Some positives to notice during the pandemic

‘Silver linings’ related to the pandemic itself—This category includes appreciation for people who perform their jobs admirably through the crisis such as doctors, nurses and first responders along with personal care home workers, grocery store and pharmacy workers, truck drivers, railway and airline employees, bus drivers and others who take workers in essential service jobs to and from work, and anyone who I haven’t mentioned. On a personal scale, this category includes appreciating the way people close to you have ‘come through in the clutch’ such as family members, friends, workers and volunteers who have had a positive effect on you.

Enjoyable activities—There are many activities you can enjoy doing in the midst of the pandemic even if most of these are necessarily in one’s home. For example, my routine of enjoyable activities includes workouts on my bike trainer, playing the piano (including weekly video lessons), making and eating meals, reading for pleasure and professional development, listening to music, surfing the net, doing the newspaper crossword puzzle, playing ‘scrabble sprint’ on the computer, writing blog articles and watching movies and television. Some of your activities might be different from mine but the common denominator is that engaging in these activities and noticing their positive effects on your mood can make it easier to manage the stress of the pandemic.

Social connections—When you’re dealing with the stress of the pandemic, noticing the positive effects of social connections can be uplifting. This includes appreciating the family members, relationship partners or others with whom you live. It also entails setting aside time to connect with people remotely by video, phone, email, text and other means. Making sure you have such enjoyable social connections and noticing their positive effects doesn’t eliminate the negatives during this challenging time. However, it makes it much easier to handle them.

Unexpected positives—If you’re like me, you’ve discovered some positives from this difficult situation which you weren’t anticipating. For example, I’ve discovered that it is so much nicer not having to be on the go commuting each day—with the bonus of not having to pay for gas for my car so often. I find this pace of daily living much more relaxing than that which I experienced before the pandemic. And as a psychologist, an unexpected positive I’ve discovered is that I like working from home and that I can help clients just as well when the sessions occur by video chat as when they are in-person meetings at the office. As a result, when the pandemic is over I will make video sessions an option for my clients on an ongoing basis.

May you notice the positives as well as the negatives in a difficult situation,

Dr. Pat