In the era of COVID-19 when many of us are quarantined and things are uncertain and feel out of control, it’s natural for stress levels to rise. We’re hardwired for anxiety to keep us safe when faced with uncertainty. Anxiety is our friend, our protector, warning us of potential danger—all for our own good. The key is to make anxiety work for us instead of against us in unpredictable times. It helps to know what we can change or control and what we can’t.


Your perspective is your most valuable power tool during challenging times. Photo by Saketh Garuda on Unsplash

Your greatest power is your perspective. It can victimize you or empower you. When you look for the upside in a downside situation and figure out what you can control and what you can’t, it’s easier to accept whatever is beyond your control. Your best ally is to find the opportunity in the difficulty during an uncontrollable situation instead of the difficulty in the opportunity.

Your Negativity Bias

Mother Nature equipped us with a negativity bias to keep us out of harm’s way. This bias causes us to overestimate threats and underestimate our ability to handle them. Naturally, when we know an invisible disease is spreading around us with unclear consequences, our anxiety will go up. The key is to appreciate our anxiety’s intent and use it without letting it use us or letting it throw our rational brain offline, which it will do at lightning speed so we can act quickly in an emergency. Today In: Careers

Chances are during social isolation, your negativity bias will zoom in on the COVID-19 threat causing you to focus on the problem, gloom and doom and shake in your boots, eclipsing your personal power and the blessings and positive aspects in your life. The more you focus on a negative situation or sensation—such as pain, fear, or frustrating obstacles—the worse it nibbles away at you. When the mind is focused on lack or ruminates on fear, we operate from a position of loss and discontent and experience more lack.

Pessimism is a perspective that can sneak up on any of us at any time. If you’re like most people, you’ve had knee-jerk reactions that you were unaware of in the moment like my colleague Sophie who loved the warm, long days of summer. One day in June on the longest day of the year, I stuck my head in her office door and said, “You must be on cloud nine.”

She looked up from her computer, raised a curious eyebrow. “Why?”

“It’s the longest, sunny day of the year.”

She frowned. “Not really, I’m down in the dumps. Tomorrow the days start getting shorter again.”

“But this is the day you’ve been waiting for,” I replied, “Your perspective is shrinking your joy.”

Her eyes widened, and her frown spread into a smile, surprised that negativity had hijacked her. In that ah-ha moment, she realized her pessimistic outlook had occluded her happiness.

Science Reveals the Secret Mojo

If you’re a card-carrying pessimist, chances are during these extraordinary times you’re having more difficulty seeing the upside of this downside situation. If so, you can ask if you’re freely choosing your perspective? Or are you a prisoner of the circumstances? We can’t always change what happens to us, but we can always change our perspective.

Scientists have gotten in on the act to discover the secret mojo. Their findings? The way you think about your circumstances makes all the difference in your mood, health, and success—even longevity. When you ruminate and over-focus on the difficulty, what goes wrong, who hurt you or how disappointed you are, you will continue to suffer. If you focus on the upside of a downside situation where your power lies and what you can control in the situation, you can find peace of mind. This way of thinking moves you from a victim at the mercy of an external force to an empowered person.

One way to own your power is to perform acts of kindness for someone. Recently, I pulled into a Starbucks drive-thru and ordered my regular double-shot latte. When I handed the cashier my credit card, she said, “The person in front of you paid for your order.” I felt a boost of exhilaration and immediately said, “Then I’d like to pay for the person’s order behind me.” It had been a gloomy day with all the worry about COVID-19, but those kind acts boosted my mood for hours after. You, too, can experience what scientists call “the helper’s high,” which boosts your mood simply by doing something good for someone else in these challenging times.

Optimism is some of the best medicines to thrive during COVID-19 quarantine, no matter how dire the circumstances. You don’t possess some magical joy juice. And you don’t have to become a smiley-face romantic with your head in the sand or look through rose-colored glasses. Optimists are realists who take positive steps to cope with obstacles instead of succumbing to them. Although researchers have found that being optimistic is associated with more gray matter in regions of your prefrontal cortex, you don’t have to be a natural-born optimist. You can cultivate a positive outlook. With practice, you realize you have a choice on how to view the slings and arrows life delivers, simply by choosing your outlook.

“Our greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”—William James

Optimism literally expands your peripheral vision and lets you see more possibilities and solutions to problems than pessimism, which limits our outlook. Optimism unlocks our personal resources and capabilities to deal with an opportunity embedded in a hardship. Studies show that if you’re an optimist, you’re more likely to scoot up the career success ladder faster and farther than a pessimist. One study showed that sales personnel with an optimistic outlook sold 37 % more life insurance in their first two years than pessimists. Other studies show that you adopt healthier habits, too. Statistics reveal that, if you’re an optimist, you have a lower stress level and a more stable cardiovascular system than average, and you have a stronger immune system. You’re happier, have fewer health complaints, healthier relationships and live an average of seven and a half years longer than average.

10 Ways To Stack The Cards In Your Favor

Like the zoom lens of a camera, Mother Nature baked in the negativity bias to zero in and target a threat. Your heart races, eyes dilate and breathing escalates to enable you to fight or flee. As your brain zooms in, you make life-or-death judgments that constrict your ability to see possibilities. Your focus is narrow like the zoom lens of a camera, clouding out the big picture. And it has to be this way to save you in an emergency. But over time when these maneuvers become a daily routine, you build blind spots of negativity without realizing it.  

Once you realize you have a choice of how to perceive and respond to a challenge and that optimism is always present—even under the direst pressures—you can start to focus your mind more on the possible, big-picture aspects of situations and build on them. In other words, you expand your lizard brain’s constrictive “zoom lens” into a “wide-angle lens,” creating a perspective that broadens your range of vision. Scientists call this tool, “broaden-and-build,” which allows you to see more possibilities, options and choices and take in more information to free you from your mind’s constriction. 

If you’re like many people in uncertain times, you automatically focus on the survival aspects of your life that arouse fear and equip you to rise to the occasion in a heartbeat. You build your negativity deck without recognizing it, and that becomes your lens for most situations. Your negativity bias can squeeze the life out of you and diminish your verve for life. It can restrain you from taking on new challenges, forming new relationships or deepening intimacy with old ones. But when you reshuffle your negativity deck and stack it with positivity, you have the cumulative benefit of unlocking a range of options. It’s essential to be intentional about shifting your negativity bias, make an effort to look for and experience positive emotions and savor them much like you would an ice cream cone. Here are 10 actions to stir your optimistic juices, stack the cards in your favor and embrace the perspective less taken: 

 1. Broaden your scope. Focus on the solution, not the problem. Step back from today’s challenge, look at the big picture, and brainstorm a wide range of options instead of over-focusing on the difficulty. Every time you’re feeling pessimistic or hopeless, put on your wide-angle lens, pull up the big picture and see the situation in a broad context instead of from the narrow lens that clouds out possibilities.

2. Dwell on your personal resources. Dwell on positive aspects of your life where you can make a difference. Consider the personal resources at your fingertips to overcome obstacles, instead of the limitations: staying healthy, getting ample sleep, exercising, meditating, eating well and establishing strong social supports. Remind yourself how they provide an opportunity for you to learn more about your strengths and positive qualities and put them into practice. When was the last time you soaked in a hot bath, contemplated in nature or meditated? Make a 15-minute appointment with yourself and schedule personal time so you have more to give and receive. Then, reach out to others who need you over social media, stay in touch with loved ones, and volunteer to help when and where you can.

3. Learn how resilient you really are. Turning defeat into a well-learned lesson builds you up instead of tearing you down. Be curious about what you can learn about yourself from social distancing and use it as stepping-stones instead of roadblocks. Ask yourself: “How can I make this situation work to my advantage?” or “Can I find something positive in this crisis?” or “What can I manage or overcome in this instance?”

4. Be Chancy. You’re likely to be more resilient if you stick your neck out than if you settle into cozy ruts and routines. Try new things, be creative and develop a new hobby or skill. Ask yourself what you can add or change to spice up your life. Take small risks in new situations instead of letting survival fears predict negative outcomes. 

5. Engage your “tallcomings,” self-compassion, and positive self-talk. Underscore your triumphs and high-five your “tallcomings” instead of bludgeoning yourself with your “shortcomings.” Make it a habit to throw modesty out the window and name as many of your accomplishments as you can—what you’re good at, the skills and talents you possess and what you’ve achieved that your negativity bias constantly overshadows. Affirm positive feedback instead of letting it roll off. Give yourself pep talks and refrain from attacking yourself or from making negative self-judgments when you stumble. Give yourself a fist pump every time you reach a milestone or important accomplishment. Tell yourself how awesome you are: “I knew I could do it!”

“A pat on the back is only a few vertebrae removed from a kick in the pants, but it is miles ahead in results.”—Ella Wheeler Wilcox

6. Avoid blowing situations out of proportion. Don’t let one negative experience rule your whole outlook. “I didn’t get the promotion; now I’ll never reach my career goals” becomes “I didn’t get the promotion, but there are many other steps I can take to reach my career goals.” Nothing is permanent, nothing lasts forever and every situation can be changed for the better.

7. Underscore the upside of a downside situation. Your negativity bias causes you to see the difficulty in an opportunity, but you can outfox it and start finding the opportunity in the difficulty—gains in your losses and beginnings in your endings. “I had to pay more taxes this year than ever” becomes “I made more money this year than I’ve ever made.” Instead of letting pleasantness slip by, you can highlight the way the breeze feels on your skin, savor the frozen yogurt on your tongue or linger over the fragrance of a flower. When you take time to appreciate the smallest things around you, it grows positive feelings and creates pleasing sensations such as slowed heart rate and loosened muscles.

8. Pay attention to the upbeat news wrapped around` downbeat news. “Many people are going to catch COVID-19” becomes “Many people will contract the virus, and many people will get better, too.” This perspective allows you to discover gifts in adversity and how a seismic event can change your life for the better, especially when you ask what you can do in your own corner of the world to help. You can re-frame gloomy prospects in a positive way. Few situations are one hundred percent bad. If the weather forecast is fifty percent chance of rain, remind yourself there’s a fifty percent chance it won’t rain.

9. Choose your state of mind. Pay attention to the attitude you bring to these uncertain times and keep it in check. Refuse to let your negativity bias decide your perspective—regardless of how dire the circumstances. Every time you get caught in the difficulty of the moment, take a breath and step back from the situation. Before you react, give your lizard brain time to settle down from flooding you and your rational brain to come back online once your reaction settles.

10. Develop an attitude of gratitude This is a time to count your blessings—all the things you might have overlooked, forgotten or taken for granted. The gratitude exercise helps you see the flip side of the narrow scope that your mind builds without your knowledge. Make a list of the many things you’re grateful for—the people, places and things that make your life rich and full, that bring you comfort and joy. After you’ve made your list, meditate on your appreciation for each item and visualize anything you’ve taken for granted—things or people even pets that if you didn’t have would leave your life empty and meaningless. Seize your blessings, hold them close to your heart and don’t let fear or worry distract you from the big picture and the treasured aspects of your life.

“Life is a song, sing it; life is a struggle, accept it; life is a tragedy, confront it; life is an adventure, dare it.”—Mother Teresa


  • Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Journalist, psychotherapist, and Author of 40 books.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, psychotherapist in private practice, and award-winning author of two novels and 40 nonfiction books that have been translated into 15 languages. His latest books are CHAINED TO THE DESK IN A HYBRID WORLD: A GUIDE TO WORK-LIFE BALANCE (New York University Press, 2023)#CHILL: TURN OFF YOUR JOB AND TURN ON YOUR LIFE (William Morrow, 2019), DAILY WRITING RESILIENCE: 365 MEDITATIONS & INSPIRATIONS FOR WRITERS (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018). He is a regular contributor to, Psychology Today, and Thrive Global. He has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, ABC's World News Tonight, NPR’s Marketplace, NBC Nightly News and he hosted the PBS documentary "Overdoing It: How To Slow Down And Take Care Of Yourself." website: