In a world rife with uncertainty, fear and anxiety, people are looking to offset panic with positivity.

As response efforts to the COVID-19 pandemic see people self-isolating, quarantining and social distancing en masse as businesses, communities and countries are systematically shutting down, mental health concerns are mounting. Trusted health leaders around the world—including the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the British National Health Services (NHS) and the World Health Organization (WHO)—have warned that anxiety and depression are spiking globally in tandem with the spread of COVID-19.

The pandemic is washing the world in fear, uncertainty and stress, trailing mounting mental health concerns in its wake. Among WHO’s guidelines for coping with COVID-19 is the recommendation that individuals “find opportunities to amplify positive and hopeful stories.” To prevent a paranoia pandemic, global leaders are prescribing a healthy dose of positivity—and platforms, brands, and individuals are heeding this advice with new efforts meant to spread joy and optimism.

Coping through content

Content platforms are working to consciously promote positivity. On March 23, 2020, i-D introduced a weekly coronavirus good news bulletin highlighting “hopeful stories from the pandemic…to inspire optimism and hope as we adapt to our new normal,” the publication wrote. Elle UK is also encouraging optimism with a list of 25 “coronavirus-related good news stories” published on March 23, 2020.

In addition to seeking out uplifting stories, people are turning to entertainment platforms for a moment of relief and respite. According to March 2020 findings from Nielsen, media consumption in the US is at historic highs and is projected to grow as people stay home, following patterns observed during natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and a major snowstorm in 2016. “During crisis events,” Nielsen explains, “media users ramp up their media consumption to stay informed, kill time, find solace and stay in touch with others.”

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Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker

Disney+ brought forward the streaming dates for Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker and Frozen II, surprising viewers with the early releases in an effort to spread “fun and joy during this challenging period,” Disney explained. MetroHealth relaunched the 2018 award-winning podcast Prescription for Hope exclusively to cover coronavirus questions and growing concerns. Meanwhile, prominent entertainment editorials are directing readers to content that may help combat stress. Vanity Fair published “What to Stream to Soothe Your Coronavirus Anxiety,” a list of television shows to help viewers take their mind off of the troubling and panic-inducing news circuits. Likewise, the Guardian published a recommended quarantine reading list, compiled “to bring joy in difficult times.”

Digital parties

“Maintaining strong connections will help you to feel supported and surrounded by positivity and good energy,” Gerard Barnes, CEO of mental health specialists Smart TMS, told The Independent. In the absence of IRL gatherings, people are turning to digital interfaces to reconstruct their communities and forge social connections. In response to growing demand for digital socializing, new platforms and services are helping to stave off loneliness by bringing people together virtually during quarantine and isolation.

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Covid Room. Courtesy of Instagram.
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Online parties are helping people feel connected despite social distancing. Released on March 15, 2020, Covid Room is a new music performance platform for virtual parties and “remote crowding” that uses webcams to create a “collective mosaic” where participants can “see musicians playing and other people dancing with you, to the rhythm of the same music.” Netflix Party is adapting movie nights during isolation. The Google Chrome extension lets multiple remote viewers watch Netflix shows or movies simultaneously by syncing video playback and helps viewers connect with a group chat for real-time reactions and commentary.

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Instagram Co-Watching

Following in the footsteps of these virtual parties, Instagram introduced a new Co-Watching feature on March 24, 2020 that lets users scroll through the platform together over in-app video chat.

QuarantineChat is a new app designed to help people connect and build community during physical confinement. The voice chat service was created “to bring magic and serendipity to a new reality where thousands of people are stuck inside alone for the next month all over the world,” the creators told Business Insider.

“Maybe ‘QuarantineChat’ sounds dystopian, but I believe subtle humor is important during chaotic times,” co-creator Danielle Baskin told Business Insider. “While COVID-19 is not a lighthearted matter, we hope this project brings people moments of joy.”

Finding the facts

Another recommended measure for corralling feelings of fear and finding mental balance is limiting news intake and focusing on reliable sources. “The sudden and near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel worried,” said WHO. “Get the facts; not the rumors and misinformation.”

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Instagram promotes credible sources for COVID-19 information
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Social media platforms, which are rife with opinion and often blamed for perpetuating misleading sources and sensational rumors, are introducing new measures to combat COVID-19 misinformation. Over the past month, nearly all the major social media players have added features and policies to promote the dissemination of accurate information. Spotify, Instagram and YouTube have added a link to WHO resources at the top of search pages. Pinterest is limiting search results for “coronavirus,” “COVID-19” and related terms to “internationally recognized health organizations.” And Facebook embedded links into news feeds that direct users to CDC’s page on COVID-19 and has granted free unlimited ad space to WHO to publicize facts and accurate information about the disease.

Healthy habits

Consumers are flocking to virtual therapy services and digital meditation apps to find calm amidst the chaos. Popular mindfulness and therapy apps like Headspace and TalkSpace have seen increased traffic since the outbreak of COVID-19.

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TalkSpace

Megan Jones Bell, Headspace’s chief science officer, reports that the number of users looking for stress relief content on the app doubled in just three days; between March 13, 2020, when President Trump declared a national emergency, and the following Monday, March 16, member requests doubled. TalkSpace’s user volume has increased 25% since February 17, 2020 and is up 65% since last year. What’s more, from March 5 to March 12, 2020, the use of coronavirus-related terms on the app increased tenfold. Crisis Text Line, an SMS emotional support service, reports that one in every five conversations mentions “virus,” “coronavirus,” or “COVID-19.”

“In relation to coronavirus in particular, they’re using words like ‘scared,’ ‘terrified,’ ‘overwhelmed,’ ‘panicking,’ ‘paranoid,’” Crisis Text Line’s chief data scientist and co-founder Bob Filbin told Recode. “There is a consistent feeling of anxiety that we’re seeing increase.”

A March 21, 2020 op-ed penned by three professors of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) urged readers not to let physical hygiene eclipse mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We must be physically distant now—our health depends on it,” professors Cecilia Menjívar, Jacob G. Foster and Jennie E. Brand wrote. “But we should redouble our efforts to be socially close. Our health depends on that, too.”

Main image by Tuur Tisseghem from Pexels