How to avoid panicking about coronavirus

Today the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. Cases are rising swiftly outside China, Italy is in lockdown, the US is quarantining entire towns and other countries are closing schools and universities. The stock market went through one of the largest intraday drops in history on what is already being called Black Monday and people are now talking about an economic recession.

That’s all pretty bad news, and it seems to get worse every day as more and more cases are confirmed. I woke up this morning, saw the headlines and spent the next two hours wrestling with elevated stress levels. I’ve since come into the office and talked about coronavirus. It can be draining.

The Guardian Australia's homepage this morning.

Yet hidden amongst the deluge of terrible headlines, there was one that stood out to me. It was hidden on the Guardian’s homepage beneath blinking red ‘live’ updates and nine negative headlines: Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy urged calm.

I’m no sage, but I generally split all things in life into two categories: things I can change, and things I can’t change. The vast, vast majority of events fall into the first category. I obviously can’t change the spread of coronavirus, I can’t change news reporting about the coronavirus, I can’t change office conversations about coronavirus and I can’t change a coronavirus-induced recession. I also can’t change the fact that the media favours the negative stories over the glimmers of good news, however small they may seem.

The media favours negative stories for the simple reason that scary headlines outperform positive headlines. This tendency exploits our basic psychology; humans have three cognitive biases that increase our receptiveness towards bad and ugly information.

The first is negativity bias – we focus on negative information more than positive information, which is hypothesised to be an innate evolutionary behaviour to avoid danger. The second is availability bias – we place more importance on recent information because we remember it better, which reduces our ability to see the bigger picture. The third is confirmation bias, which causes us to value information that fits pre-existing beliefs brought about by the first two biases. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle.

I can’t change my innate cognitive biases. One thing I can change, however, is my news consumption. I read a lot of news – over a morning coffee, at the office, on the way home, sometimes in the evening. If I spend an hour browsing the news over the course of a day, that adds up to two weeks every year. That’s a lot of time elevating my stress levels, and for what gain? Stressing about the coronavirus may actually make me more likely to get coronavirus.

The other point to consider is how useful all the bad news actually is. The pandemic is certainly tragic and unlike anything we've seen, but the only truly useful information is the latest official guidelines on social distancing and hand-washing. Otherwise, I might transmit the disease to the vulnerable unknowingly.

It's possible to follow official advice and be responsible during a pandemic without panicking. So I’ve decided to change how often I check the news, starting by deleting apps on my phone. I’ll also try and redirect that urge towards other media, like music or podcasts. I’ll also change how frequently I wash my hands (more) and touch my face (less). It's better than waking up stressed.

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