Restarting Your Life

May 8, 2020 | Anxiety, leadership

For the past 50 days, I’ve listened to a lot of people discuss the personal impact of the nationwide lock down. I continue to hear similar themes in the conversations. People are expressing their anxiety, fear, and hopelessness. This growing trend is important to recognize and is very startling. As a Doctor of Marriage and Family Therapy, my entire dissertation was based on how anxiety creates dysfunction within a person’s life and halts the person’s ability to engage with others in a meaningful manner.

The decision to halt the American economy as a method of combating the virus from Wuhan China has created a detrimental mental health environment. Now the country is starting to open up and you are being asked to return to society. As you figure out how to re-engage with people, I would like to encourage you to set fear aside and focus on the facts.

The facts about the Virus from Wuhan China:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the United States for the week ending in 5/8/2020, the total deaths associated with either COVID-19 is 47,128. On the other hand, there has been 72,455 deaths associated with pneumonia (CDC, 2020).

Looking at the Washington State, where I work, for the week ending 4/28/2020 there has been a total of 891 deaths (WSDH, 2020). This means since the start of the pandemic there have been 12 deaths per 100,000 people as compared to New York which has had 135 deaths per 100,000 people or Colorado’s 16 deaths per 100,000 (Elflein, 2020). Interestingly, even though Colorado has experienced a higher death per 100,000 rate, the state has begun the process of opening up (Swidler & Hill, 2020) and Washington continues to extend the lock down.

Frequently, the death rate of the US is explained as a ‘total’ number and we are told that the US is leading the world in virus death. While the US does have the highest total death rate, this is extremely misleading. One needs to equalize the populations by using deaths per 100,000.

CountryPopulationDeath Rate per 100,000
United States328.2 Million23.13
Belgium11.6 Million73.67
Population and death rates per 100,000

The United States has experienced 23.13 deaths per 100,000 as compared to Belgium’s 73.67 deaths per 100,000 (John Hopkins University, 2020). Belgium currently has the highest death rate per 100,000. The US death rate is actually at the bottom of the death per 100,000 chart and yet we have one of the highest total deaths.

To understand how the US can have such a high total death rate and a low death per 100,000 takes a bit of statistics. The US has 328.2 million people compared to Belgium’s population of 11.6 million. This means Belgium’s population is 3.5% of the US population.

The United States has experienced 23.13 deaths per 100,000 as compared to Belgium’s 73.67 deaths per 100,000. This means Belgium’s death rate is 318% of the US death rate. Yes, the US has had one of the highest total death from the virus, but we do not have the highest death rate.

To understand the impact of this virus, you must look at the death per 100,000 and not the total deaths.

The Purpose for the Lock Down:

When the pandemic started, the country was told we were going to lock down so that we could flatten the curve. This would protect the hospitals from being overwhelmed and ensure each person who needed a ventilator would receive one (Gavin, 2020). For the majority of the country, the hospitals were never overrun with COVID-19. In fact, the lock down worked so well that 249 hospitals have needed to furlough doctors, nurses, janitors, and other support staff due to the lack of non-COVID patients using the hospital services and these patients continue to go untreated (Paavola, 2020).

Changing Focus:

Even with the lock down, the virus continued to spread. If it had not continued to spread, the report of deaths would have ended. As the infection rate continued to grow, the country started developing herd immunity. Herd immunity occurs when enough people become infected so that the virus has no new options to infect (Merrille, 2012). This baseline growth of people who have the virus reduces the virus’ ability to continue infecting people so it dies out (Somerville, Kumaran, & Anderson, 2016). It is now being reported there may be 25-80 times more people infected than are being recorded (Bendavid et al., 2020; Palo Alto, 2020). Herd immunity has begun developing.

William Bryan, the science and technology advisor to the Department of Homeland Security, reported that UV rays from sunshine kills half the COVID-19 particles on a surface every 2 minutes (Smith, 2020). So, after 2 minutes of sunshine there is only ½ of the virus particles left, then in 2 more minutes ½ of the remaining virus particles are killed. If the virus is transferred from another person to you, simply standing in the sunshine will kill the virus.

Re-entering Society:

How do all these facts help you re-start your life? People are rife with anxiety about engaging with other people, getting sick, and things never returning to normal. As we continue to interact with this virus, the conversations have shifted from the fear of the unknown about the virus to the fear of the unknown of the future.  

  • 1. You might already be infected. There may be up to 50% of the people who have the virus that show no symptoms (Woodward, 2020).
  • 2. Recognize your fear for what it is. Fear of the unknown. The media continues to bombard us with the thought that things will never go back to normal. For humans, normal is interacting with other humans. It is a part of our make-up and helps us retain a sense of balance. As the lock down is lifted, it is important for you to reconnect with your support system.
  • 3. Review your self-care procedures. Wash your hands, enjoy the beautiful sunshine, and refrain from hugging or hand shaking. Taking small precautions can help you reduce your fear about becoming infected. 

Moving forward:

While we are being told that we have never seen anything like this before, remind yourself that is not true. In 541 AD, between 30-50 million people died from the plague, this was probably half the earth’s population.

Starting in 1347 the plague killed 200 million people over the next four years. The concept of quarantining people was born. Quarantine is based on the Italian word quarantino, or 40. People entering a city were separated for 40 days to help reduce the spread.

In 1665 in London, 100,000 people died from the plague. Red crosses were placed on the homes of the ill who were forcefully quarantined in their homes.

Starting the the 15th century, smallpox killed 3 out of 10 people in the old world and 90-95% of the indigenous people living in the new world. The difference between the two worlds was that the old world had developed some herd immunity. In the 18th century, Dr. Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine to combat the virus.  In 1980, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been wiped out (Roos, 2020).  

With each outbreak of a pandemic, humans learned and prepared for the next wave. We still quarantine. Sometimes forcefully such as our country being in lock down for over 50 days. Other times by choice. When you have a cold, you tend to stay home so you don’t spread it around. We continue to use a red cross as a symbol of suffering and it has grown into representing a place of hope. When a virus emerges, we move quickly to develop vaccines to help combat it.  

As a country, what will we take from this pandemic? Since the end of the 19th century, our country has experienced numerous pandemics: Cholera, Yellow Fever, Polio, H1N1 (Spanish Flu, Swine Flu), H2N2 (Asian Flu), H3N2 (Hong Kong Flu), HIV/AIDS, Sever Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and now SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19).

When the next pandemic hits, and it will, are we going to be willing to completely shut down our economy or will we figure out a different way to manage the situation?

As an individual, what have you learned about yourself during this lock down? Did you find yourself drifting into fear or did you continue addressing the facts so you could remain calm and make solid decisions?

Julie Swanberg-Hjelm, PhD

Julie is an expert on anxiety and differentiation of self. She helps organizations and individuals recognize how they are responding to anxiety and how to create new patterns of response. When people are able to develop a greater capability of lowering their emotional reactivity, they can develop different ways to interact with problems and discover creative manners to address those problems.


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