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Your COVID-19 anxiety is like an algorithm. Here’s how to hack it

Fear of the unknown can be overwhelming. But thinking of your anxiety as an algorithm—just like your immune system—can yield some valuable insights, writes Hipmunk’s ex-CEO and Y Combinator visiting partner.

Your COVID-19 anxiety is like an algorithm. Here’s how to hack it
[Source illustration: GDJ/Pixabay]
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When you’re presented with new and unknown circumstances, such as a worldwide pandemic, it’s normal for your anxiety to feel overwhelming. If you’re responsible for others—employees of a company, for example—it’s even harder because you’re thinking of ways to keep them safe too.

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This anxiety is useful. Though it can feel debilitating at times, it’s a tool we’ve evolved to protect us from danger. I believe it’s possible to use the helpful parts of anxiety to your benefit, while avoiding its downsides.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many founders, as a mentor and most recently in a stint as a visiting partner at Y Combinator. I’ve often shared a perspective that’s been helpful for entrepreneurs and company leaders: Think of anxiety as being like a natural immune response, almost like an algorithm.

Anxiety works a lot like our immune system, which uses a natural algorithm to defend our bodies from harmful bacteria or viruses. By randomly shuffling up DNA billions of times to imagine almost every microbe that could threaten us, our immune system is able to uniquely identify viruses we haven’t encountered before so it can defend our bodies from any foreign invaders.

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With COVID-19, our immune systems err on the side of aggressively attacking the virus because it’s unfamiliar. This means most people survive. But when people do die, it’s sometimes a result of the body’s overreaction to the virus—a “cytokine storm“—rather than the virus itself.

“That’s when you end up with a lot of these really severe inflammatory disease conditions like pneumonia, shortness of breath, inflammation of the airway, and so forth,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of public health, told The Scientist.

This immune overreaction is similar to the extreme fear and uncertainty many of us feel about the virus and the economic situation it’s created. Because we’ve never experienced a situation like this, our anxiety causes us to err on the side of caution to keep us safe.

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I call the line that divides the things we attack from the things we don’t the Paranoia Line.

Having a high Paranoia Line—where your anxiety reacts to more things—helps keep you safe, but it also means accepting a high rate of false positives, where you attack things that aren’t actually a threat. For example, you may stay home and avoid crowds, which helps keep you and those around you safe from infection, but you might also buy three years’ worth of toilet paper for fear of the world running out, which isn’t actually necessary.

In an era when everyone with a Twitter account can shout about their own fears, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the opinions of experts in epidemiology, experts in propaganda, and nonexperts masquerading as experts. It’s hard to know if your Paranoia Line is too high or too low: Are we overreacting or underreacting? What does it even mean to overreact when no matter how we react there are downsides?

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When I ran the travel site Hipmunk, I would often feel as if small setbacks meant disaster. When our first employee quit after a few years, I worried everyone was about to quit and that we’d never recover. Over time, I found some techniques to lower my Paranoia Line, which helped moderate my anxiety algorithm so that I save my worry for larger, more important problems. During this inordinately stressful time, these three strategies might help you focus your anxiety on the problems you can control, rather than dwelling on what you can’t.

Prioritize where to focus your anxiety

One way you can reduce your overall anxiety is to reduce needless distractions.

This starts with being decisive. Some decisions are thought-intensive but nearly irrelevant to a startup’s success. If you often spend an hour shopping flights to save $10, for example, try reminding yourself of the unnecessary work you’re generating for very little gain. It also helps to create routines that reduce the need to decide on minutiae. Steve Jobs famously had just one outfit.

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Most of all, difficult relationships can generate a lot of unnecessary stress. In addition to the anxiety that the relationship itself causes, you may also worry about the fallout of ending it.

As with most aspects of startups, it’s not the obviously difficult things that cause the most anxiety, because you address those when they demand attention. It’s usually the mediocre personal and professional relationships that never quite rise to the level of crisis that generate endless anxious scenarios in your mind without demanding resolution.

You’ll be less anxious if you make a list of those things and prioritize improving them. Having some compassion for everyone can go a long way, especially right now.

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Set reasonable expectations

Your anxiety often works hard to anticipate and avoid something that may disappoint you. But disappointment is relative to expectations, and setting expectations differently can preempt disappointment and reduce anxiety.

“We might be locked down for a very long time” is a truthful assessment of the COVID-19 crisis, and reminding yourself of that fact can counteract the disappointment of the lockdown being extended. Creating short mantras such as “Most startups fail” can help you keep these hard realities in perspective. Try saying it out loud to help set your expectations before a phone call or meeting you’re worried about.

Put your stress in perspective

It’s normal to feel that when you’re anxious, there must be something wrong. But this is not necessarily true, because most people’s Paranoia Lines are set at a high level.

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That means you shouldn’t just ask yourself, “What should I do about this thing I’m stressing about?”

Make sure you also ask, “Is stressing about this thing making me incorrectly perceive it as a threat?” If you’re often stressed about smaller-stakes problems, your Paranoia Line might simply be calibrated too high.

If that’s the case, asking this simple question can help you understand if something is actually a threat, which can allow you to direct your attention to the most important things. Instead of focusing on the stress points that pop into your head at random, you can focus on the actions you can take that will have the biggest impact.

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Adam Goldstein is the former CEO of travel aggregation site Hipmunk, a former Y Combinator visiting partner, and an MIT engineer. He’s been working with startup CEOs and tech managers to mitigate anxiety in the fast-paced tech startup world.