Few things make us consider our own mortality more than a pandemic. The nightly news, newspaper front pages, and mournful posts on social media serve as constant reminders that illness and death are all around us. In normal times, death is something we try not to think about. During pandemic times, it’s hard to think about anything else.
Last month, I wrote about grief and loss. I talked about how the death of someone you love affects your mental wellbeing and offered tips on how to grieve in a healthy and mindful way. But COVID-19 forces us to consider another kind of death as well: our own.
A July Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll found that 53% of adults in the U.S. “reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus,” a 21% increase from when the same question was asked in March. According to a May 4 article in the Washington Post, “The coronavirus pandemic is pushing America into a mental health crisis,” “A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000 percent increase in April compared with the same time last year” and Talkspace, an online therapy company, “reported a 65 percent jump in clients.”
While the coronavirus’s social and economic impact is leading to much of the depression and anxiety that we’re feeling right now, at least part of what’s driving the current mental health crisis is fear of COVID-19 itself and our own illness or death. If the fear of death keeps you so preoccupied that you’re living in constant anxiety and without joy, despite taking all the necessary precautions to avoid getting COVID, you cut short your potential for a successful, happy life.
While thoughts of sickness and death are inevitable, you can either allow yourself to be consumed by fear, stuck in your head where worst-case scenarios and doomsday predictions live, or you can remain fully in the present, where joy resides. When you stay trapped in fear, you waste your potential for a fulfilling life and damage your health, the very thing you’re stressed about. To handle fear, you have to acknowledge it. Write about it or share your feelings with someone who can listen effectively without fueling the fear, such as a therapist or level-headed friend.
There are things you can do to lower your chances of catching the coronavirus, like staying 6 feet apart and wearing a mask, but just living in a constant state of COVID-related anxiety can damage your physical health, too. According to a 2018 American Psychological Association report, “Stress effects on the body,” chronic stress can exacerbate or prolong certain health conditions like musculoskeletal pain and respiratory disease and increase your risk of other serious health problems like hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.
The best way to manage your anxiety about COVID is to approach life with realistic positivity. Realistic positivity means seeing and accepting what is now—both in your inner and outer worlds—and then focusing on what you would love. Instead of the “everything will turn out well,” glass-is-always-half-full optimism that can quickly deflate when something bad happens, realistic positivity can never be invalidated by reality. Realistic positivity is the mindset of resilient people. It gives you the ability to dismantle your fears and move into the present, where you can refocus your energy on what you love.
Recognizing your vulnerability can lead you in one of two directions: either you shrink away from life as a reaction to discomfort caused by the fear of death, or you embrace life with gusto, urgency, and appreciation, knowing that your days are finite. Living with realistic positivity means accepting your mortality. When you finally, fully admit to yourself that you’re not going to be the first person in all of human history not to die, you’re pushed into a corner and asked to answer two simple questions: “What will you do knowing that someday you will die?” and “How will you choose to live your life?”
Realistic positivity can help you appreciate and find happiness in each and every day, to take everything as an opportunity to love and live as fully as possible. Instead of ruminating about death, you can focus on what you want for your life. You can treat the harmful physical effects of stress with healthy living by exercising, eating healthful foods, and keeping your brain stimulated — not because your doctor keeps nagging you to, but because you want to in order to live life fully. And you can better appreciate the people in your life, knowing that your time together is limited and, therefore, precious.
Approaching COVID-19 with realistic positivity can help you balance your short-term need to stay coronavirus-free with your more fundamental purpose of living life to the fullest every moment that it’s yours to enjoy.
 Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Orgera, K., Cox, C., Garfield, R., Hamel, L., Muñana, C., & Chidambaram, P. “(2020, August 21). The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. Kaiser Family Foundation. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use.
 Wan, W. (2020, May 4). The coronavirus pandemic is pushing America into a mental health crisis. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com.
 American Psychological Association. (2018). Stress effects on the body. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress-body.