Renowned clinical psychologist David Clayman talks about fear, coping, and perspective on COVID-19.


Dr. David Clayman sits alone in his office perched above Corridor G in Charleston. It’s Wednesday morning, and over a week has passed since Governor Jim Justice first announced a statewide stay-at-home order to stop the spread of COVID-19 in West Virginia. What’s usually a busy route through the capital city looks like a ghost town, he says. He’s appreciative of that fact, because it means many people are heeding the warnings and doing what they should in response to the global pandemic. Not everyone is coping well, or even coping at all, and Clayman shares his thoughts on the realities that the world is facing right now.

Q: How are West Virginians handling COVID-19?

A: It’s very easy right now to behave in a way that’s not very healthy. Instead, we all really need to accept that something bad is happening. We need to recognize that we’re dealing with something unknown and about which there are no definitive answers. We’re worried about misreading the symptoms. We’re worried about isolation. We’re dealing with this idea of maintaining social distance right now even though we’re built to seek out
connections with others. When we’re denied connection, we get upset. Oftentimes this can lead to anxiety and depression. People get angry and frustrated in situations like these. And anger makes people do stupid things. These are all maladaptive behaviors about something we have no control over.

Q: Do we have any control in this situation?

A: Each individual has more control than they realize over how to handle COVID-19. The problem is that people think the current answers are too simple. The bottom line is that we can eliminate 80 percent of our risk of infection by doing simple things like washing our hands, social distancing, avoiding sick people, and staying home. In a way, the simplicity of the solution makes some people think this whole thing isn’t so bad. It is bad. But we have more control than we think we do.

However, we can only control the way we think and what we do. The key to dealing with situations like this is to find small things you can control. Plan for the fact that you might be isolated. Read. Sit on your porch and enjoy
the breeze. Organize your closets or get your taxes done. Try and focus on the positive side of having a little bit of time off. Those are the kinds of things we can control and how we can take better care of ourselves psychologically.

Q: What advice would you give to the families currently living in close quarters, spouses working from home together, and anyone feeling intense cabin fever?

A: This situation is all about perspective. We are not restricted to our houses in the sense that we can’t go outside or go out for things we need. Take a walk as a family. I love hearing that families are actually sitting
down eating together, spending time together. This is a time for sharing. Hold family close to you. They’re the people that you have the capacity to be close to right now. You can hug them and hold their hands. There’s no one else right now that you can have that connection with. Stay in contact with others using social media. We should focus less about what we can’t do and more on what we can. This is a challenge. All the rules have changed. But we will get through it.

Q: Do you have any advice on working from home and achieving work-life balance when “the office” is just down the hall?

A: You need to think about who you are and what you need in order to be functional in this new life for however long it lasts. It’s important to define your space and your priorities when you’re in this space. It’s also important that the people you live with respect that. You should get up each day and get dressed, make a schedule, and check things off your list. You should set goals and set limits.

It’s also important to recognize that our colleagues mean a lot to us. We spend so much time with them in an office setting and get to know them well. Keep up with regularly scheduled meetings. Call coworkers with whom you interact with daily. It’s important to still have connection with them and to still have purpose and value in your work. Feeling worthwhile
and productive means you’re still part of a mission, and that’s a very positive thing to focus on.

Q: What is your advice for coping with fear?

A: Even the most positive people you know may be scared right now. Worldwide, this is the most novel experience of our lifetime. We’re not getting the kind of information through television and media that helps us to not be fearful. It’s important to have a balance between staying aware of what’s going on in the world and fueling your fears with the bad, bad news on TV. If you let fear take over, it becomes like a tsunami on you. It
overwhelms you.

We also need to consider that there are plenty of people who aren’t comfortable saying they’re scared. They might think it makes them look weak or that others will ridicule them for their fear. When we sit down in our private time and we feel fear, it’s perfectly normal based on this scenario. Everyone is feeling it. Just feel it and then find some positive way to shift your perspective.

One helpful exercise in coping with fear is to write your fears down and redefine them as concerns that create fear. Take this list and really think about it in a rational and non-panicky way. Place those concerns in a hierarchy and decide which ones you can do something about. The others—do your best to let them go. Each of us must find out personal ways to cope.

Q: How should people think about the future in light of so much uncertainty?

A: We’re going to get used to this way of living. We need to give it time—this
new life—time to sink in so that everyone can establish a new way of looking at the world in a positive way. We need to find our way back to a functional society when it’s safe to do so and to embrace our new normal. For now, all we can do is focus on the positives in every single day.

Q: How do you see this experience changing us?

A: We’re going through some horrible stuff right now, but when it’s over we will have a rebirth. We’re going to face our humanity. In order to honor the lives we will lose, we must continue to celebrate life. Life will go on. We will use this as a defining moment and this will be a challenge to humanity that will teach us that we’re all more alike than we are different, no matter where we live. We must look for the sunshine when there is a lot of rain and hold tight to tiny moments of glee.

This is us finding out how we can squeeze the best out of people. If we take the time now to grow our grass, the grass will snuff out the weeds. Maybe if we take the time now, it will snuff out the hate and greed and ugliness that we’re seeing in the world. It’s all about perspective. And that could be a silver lining of COVID-19.


posted on April 24, 2020

interviewed by Holly Leleux-Thubron
image courtesy of Dayne Topkin

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Holly Leleux-Thubron
Written by Holly Leleux-Thubron
Holly is the managing editor for all magazines created by New South Media. She has more than 15 years of professional writing experience and when she isn’t working on the next issue, she’s finding adventure with her husband, Stephen, and teenage daughters: Isabel and Eve.