How to Keep Calm in the Age of Coronavirus

Sane, rational and expert — just the kind of advice you want during a pandemic. Here's how to lessen the isolation of social distancing PLUS whose health you need to prioritize when you're caring for both your kids and your parents.

By Katherine Lanpher
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Judith Matloff is a distinguished war correspondent who has filed stories from five continents and who often trains other conflict journalists on how to stay safe while they’re out in the field.

Surprisingly, much of that advice works just as well for us civilians in the war against the Coronavirus. And, lucky us, she just finished distilling all that knowledge into a new book for civilians that comes out in May: How to Drag a Body and Other Safety Tips You Hope to Never Need.

The Plum spoke to her on Sunday, when she had just finished stocking up her own quarantine pantry in Manhattan, where she lives with her husband and son, a college freshman whose classes have been suspended. 

Why Women Over 40 are Vulnerable to Coronavirus

Plum: I’ve read some analysis that suggests women over 40 are going to be hard hit by this because they’re so often the caretakers, with both children and their parents to look after.

Matloff: Totally, totally. I think just by nature and by default we tend to be the ones who are the home organizers. So that’s a very big problem. I think what people need to do — aside from buying the wipes, which you can’t get anymore, and debating whether or not to wear a mask and scouring the doorknobs — is the long-term and more meta planning. 

So, other than getting the cans of corn and tuna fish, what you really have to think about is: Do I have all my contacts lined up in case somebody gets really, really sick? Have I lined up a tele-consultation with my doctors? Have I lined up conferences with my kids’ teachers? Schools have closed. How am I going to keep the kids busy and organize their social lives in a remote way?

 

Plum: How do you prioritize all that?

Matloff: I think what’s really critical and people don’t like to talk about it is: Is my will in order? Are my finances in order? Is there an emergency person who knows how to access all my financial documents should, you know, the unthinkable happen. It’s something we do a lot with journalists in terms of war reporting and disaster planning — we tell them to have a very good communication plan, and to have it set up for all the contingencies. 

Figure out: what’s the worst case scenario? You know, you might fall ill, critically, or your mother or your children. How are you going to spring into action in a very efficient way to make sure you can handle this emergency? 

This is the sandwich generation we’re talking about. So they need to have a plan in place for both the little ones and the older ones.

 

Plum: Speaking of which, if I have kids, what should I be more scared of? That they’ll get the virus or give it to Grandma?

Matloff: That they’ll give it to Grandma. And you know, each age group has its challenges. But I’m most worried about teenagers who are impulsive by nature. And, you know, go to bars. And think they’re invincible.

 

Plum: Many cities have had to close down their watering holes and hangouts because young healthy people don’t see their risk to others. What do we need to say to them?

Matloff: If you make it about you, the parents, they're going to be less likely to actually listen, but if you make it about a third party, I think they're going to be more responsive. Make it more about a civic responsibility that goes beyond the parent-child relationship. 

Maybe if there's a trusted adult — other than a parent — who they look up to, maybe that person should talk to them. It’s going to be a challenge. 

 

Plum: Speaking of aging parents, what are the main precautions we, their adult children, should take?

Matloff: You've absolutely got to wash your hands, wipe yourself down, before you go visit them. But that communications plan is really, really critical. Do you know who their doctors are? Do you know all the details of their insurance company? Do you have access to their financial documents? Do they have a living will? Do you have power of attorney? I think this is a good time to have that discussion with them.

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I'm a journalist, and I teach journalism, and I'm not logging on. Just turn it off. The world is going to go on without you. Maybe just have one time a day you check. 

Judith Matloff, war correspondent and author of How to Drag a Body and Other Safety Tips You Hope to Never Need

How to Ease Anxiety about Coronavirus

Plum: How do you fight panic in general?

Matloff:  Keep telling yourself, this is temporary. Get a lot of exercise. Exercise is absolutely critical. I think it's really important not to abuse drugs or alcohol during this time, try to have a routine so that life feels kind of normal. And keep reminding yourself that most people are not getting this.

One way to fight panic is to take control of your situation, to have a plan to take action So if you're washing hands, you have your communication plan in place, you will feel more in control. Have a plan when you wake up every day, because a routine makes life seem more normal. And when life is more normal, you tend not to panic. And try to do something really fun, at least once day. So that it's not all doom and gloom.

 

Plum: So maybe, just maybe, I’m sitting on two bales of toilet paper from a warehouse store. Should I be ashamed of my panic shopping?

Matloff: Now? No. Panic shopping is just infectious. We saw this in war zones. It's like “Oh my God, everything's running out. So I gotta get it too.” Don't be ashamed of yourself. If somebody you know, needs toilet paper, share it with them.  

 

Plum: What kind of media diet do you recommend?

Matloff: I'm a journalist, and I teach journalism, and I'm not logging on. I'm just really, really restricting my media intake. I don't think it's helpful. There's a tendency to keep checking it every 10 minutes. Just turn it off. The world is going to go on without you. Maybe just have one time a day you check. 

And, usually, you're more vulnerable before you go to bed. So you really don't want to be online an hour before hitting the hay.

 

Plum: Any other advice?

Matloff: Don’t panic. Do any activity that centers you, that brings you joy. Like, I was out in the garden today. It’s absolutely critical to be out in nature. You're going to get some vitamin D. 

The amount of stress people are under right now …  some of the coping mechanisms that work for post-traumatic stress, and the ensuing panic attacks, apply to this. What we found is that if people do rhythmic things like painting a house, pruning roses, vacuuming, or washing dishes, it can be very calming for people.

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