When I tell my friends I’m not worried about coronavirus, they often reply with statistics.

As of this writing, more than 100,000 cases have been reported worldwide. At least 4,000 people have died. The mortality rate among infected people is still uncertain but estimated to be about 1%.

The S&P 500 has tumbled. The global economy is perched on the edge of recession. Local economists predict an economic slowdown.

Given these facts, why am I not worried? Because worrying does me no good. In fact, worrying about coronavirus impairs my ability to cope with the challenge it presents. In order to prepare, I must preserve a sound mind and maintain a strong body. Worry threatens both.

Preserving A Sound Mind

Ignorance is bliss, but it’s not the cause of my serenity. Twice a week, I read a summary of the disease’s progress. In this way, I avoid constant exposure to media fear-mongering, but I’m still caught up. There’s no need to watch CNN coverage on repeat or read the daily updates.

Spending time outdoors can improve your health. Courtesy: Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources

I’m no Pollyanna. I don’t think positive thinking or prayer will reverse the spread of disease. In fact, I’d wager that things will get worse before they get better. However, I’m not sure that constantly reading the news contributes to my health.

The recommended precautions haven’t changed. I wash my hands thoroughly and avoid touching my eyes, nose and mouth. I avoid close contact with sick people. I cough into my elbow when tissue isn’t available. I stay home from work when sick. I have a month’s worth of emergency food in case my girlfriend and I need to quarantine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prepared a community mitigation strategy, and Hawaii hasn’t yet reached the point of moderate impact. Thus, we’ve followed the steps outlined in the preparedness phase, but we aren’t overreacting.

We’ve prepared for an uncertain future because there is not enough information to predict what will happen next. Treatments could improve over time. Scientists might develop a vaccine. The virus might mutate to become more contagious, or may continue its current spread.

Fortunes are won and lost in efforts to predict the future. I’m no Warren Buffett, and I can’t predict the future financial performance of a single company, let alone the progression of a pandemic in a complex environment.

However, I can mitigate my downside risk. Hence, the food reserves.

By now, our only certainty should be that we can’t reliably predict the future. Indeed, anyone capable of predicting the emergence of COVID-19 could have made a fortune by shorting the stock market. Some of my friends are confident in their predictions of what will happen next, but none of them have recently become millionaires, so I don’t trust them.

Instead, I content myself with uncertainty. I’m not sure what will happen next. That’s okay. I can prepare now, stocking up on emergency food and basic survival equipment. I can also ready my body for an uncertain future.

Maintaining A Strong Body

Social media and news outlets present us with alarming images. Patients in quarantine. Deserted school campuses. Empty shelves at grocery stores.

These images heighten our attention and focus it on the risk of disease.

We become more aware of dirty surfaces. Any absence of coworkers is attributed (mostly jokingly) to the virus. Every cough becomes cause for fear.

Attention to risk is salutary up to a point, but dwelling on disease can cause stress in otherwise healthy people. This stress is potentially harmful, as current research in psychology indicates that “psychological stress can dysregulate the immune system.”

Of course, a bit of stress is sensible. If stress is motivating people to wash their hands and stock up on emergency food (before hurricane season), that’s great.

However, some people are withdrawing from social activity and confining themselves indoors prematurely. This is problematic for two reasons.

First, there’s research (and common sense) supporting the idea that social activity promotes health. Our relationships with other people (so long as they’re not infected) may buffer us from disease. In some cases, avoiding social interaction might increase our risk of illness.


Hikers wander thru a canopy of Lehua Ohia trees with the floor of ferns. Waikamoi Preserve became a reality in 1983 when the Haleakalā Ranch Company granted a conservation easement to the Conservancy over 5,230 acres. The preserve was expanded in 2014 when landowner Alexander & Baldwin conveyed a conservation easement over an additional 3,721 adjacent acres, bringing the total to 8,951 acres and making Waikamoi the largest private nature preserve in the state. The preserve protects part of the 100,000-acre East Maui Watershed, which provides 60 billion gallons of clean water annually to Maui's residents, businesses and agricultural community. The Conservancy, Haleakalā Ranch and Alexander & Baldwin continue to work together (as part of the East Maui Watershed Partnership) to protect some of the best remaining forest in all of Hawai`i.Waikamoi Preserve is managed in partnership with the State Department of Land & Natural Resources through the Natural Area Partnership Program.
Avoiding large crowds might be necessary, but still make time to see a few friends. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Social distancing may be necessary to prevent the spread of disease, but it’s important to estimate risk. Attending a music festival is risky. Hiking with a friend less so. As schools and workplaces close or go remote, it’s important that we not isolate ourselves. At the very least, we might call or video chat with friends from the safety of our bunkers.

Second, exposure to nature is associated with improved mental and general health. If people isolate themselves to avoid infection, they forgo the benefits of getting outdoors. Though more research remains to be done, visiting green spaces for 30 minutes a week may decrease the risk of high blood pressure and depression.

Of course, we should avoid high-risk situations. It’s for the best that large conferences and concerts are being canceled. But when worry goes too far, people retreat from the social relationships and natural environments that preserve their health.

Coping With Stress

Elderly people and people with compromised immune systems are at risk of infection. If COVID-19 spreads in Hawaii, the medical establishment will be tasked with caring for them. In order to reserve resources for those at risk, healthy people should work to strengthen their own immune systems.

Every effort should be taken now to ensure optimal health later. This means that, after taking precautions, people find ways to cope with stress. I’ve found benefit in practicing mindfulness-based stress reduction and studying Stoic philosophy.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine. Kabat-Zinn adapted Buddhist meditation techniques to develop a free and effective system for coping with stress.

I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation for five years. In that time, I’ve noticed marked improvements in my ability to handle stress. When I feel stress, I focus on my breath and observe the distressing thoughts. They soon pass. This daily practice complements my study of ancient Stoic philosophy.

In recent weeks, I’ve been recommending Donald Robertson’s book “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius” to my university students.

Robertson is a cognitive psychotherapist, and his book is a practical guide to Stoic philosophy. Robertson examines the life of Marcus Aurelius and explains ancient thought and writing exercises that can help modern readers to better manage themselves in stressful situations.

Marcus Aurelius faced war and plague during his time as Roman Emperor. His “Meditations” are a profound resource for those facing stress. Reading the Meditations can remind us that the human capacity to bear misfortune is great, yet even the greatest misfortunes pass with time.

Mindfulness meditation and Stoic philosophy have freed me from worry. They’ve equipped me with a sound mind, a strong body and the knowledge that preparation is necessary, but worry is not.

When we are prepared, it is easier to relax. When we are relaxed, we can think clearly and act decisively. Thus, we should strive to train and temper ourselves, as a martial artist might.

The trained martial artist is cautious of conflict, but comfortable in her ability to defend herself. She takes reasonable precautions to avoid extreme danger, but does not retreat from the world. She is disciplined, but does not worry. She is free.

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