College of Education and Human Development

Family Social Science

COVID-19 – Dr. Boss offers advice to ease anxiety

Dr. Pauline Boss discusses her work at a 2018 conference.

As we settle in to our remote work routines and disrupted family lives, anxiety and stress may still be circulating in our collective psyches. Dr. Pauline Boss, professor emeritus of Family Social Science and a ground-breaking family therapist, says giving it a name can help. She calls those unresolved feelings ambiguous loss – loss without a definitive outcome.

For more than 30 years, Dr. Pauline Boss’ groundbreaking work has focused on the interdisciplinary study of ambiguous loss. Connecting family science and sociology with family therapy and psychology, Boss has created a road map for mental health professionals and individuals find meaning and discover hope in the face of ambiguous losses. She has worked with individuals and families coping with a variety of ambiguous loss circumstances:  an armed service member missing in action, loss of a loved one in the attacks of 9-11 or a natural disaster such as tsunami, or when a loved one has succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

Here’s Dr. Boss’ advice to understand the anxiety caused by COVID- 19:

  1. When we are accustomed to solving problems and controlling trouble, our anxiety spikes when we are faced with a situation that has no clear solution. Until our scientific community gains more evidence, this is our situation now.
  2. The uncertainty and ambiguity for not knowing precisely what to do to avoid trouble makes us feel helpless WITH  high anxiety.
  3. What is required to lower our anxiety and feelings of helplessness is to shift to “both and thinking”: the situation is both bad and eventually manageable if we do what the scientists and experts recommend.
  4. We can calm ourselves by letting go of absolute thinking: “it’s nothing to worry about” versus “we’re all going to die!” The middle ground can be  more calming: “Yes, it’s both dangerous and manageable. It is both a terrible time and a time to come together for the greater good.” I am now home alone and also connected to others via technology (or singing from our balconies together!).
  5. This pandemic is both dangerous and a problem we can help to manage. We are not helpless. There is something we can do. Stay home, stay away from groups, stop traveling, discover new ways to be a couple or family by entertaining one another at home, or help the truly helpless in your neighborhood or building. Find something you can control – even if it is only cleaning your desk or your closet. It will make you feel better even as the larger situation is not yet under control.
  6. And reduce the amount of anxiety-producing TV, news or movies you are watching. This is the time for more calming films, music, books, and games­–an old idea that can ease our anxiety now.

To learn more:

This post, “COVID-19 – Family Social Science offers coping resources,” contains links to other stories and videos where you can dive deeper into Ambiguous Loss.

Are you a mental health, social work, or other helping professional? Family Social Science has extended a 25 percent discount on its Ambiguous Loss online certificate program that features videos of Dr. Boss’ discussing her work. Learn more at at the FSOS Ambiguous Loss web page.