5 Ways to Manage Your Anxiety During the Coronavirus Outbreak
Psychologists share what to do when the COVID-19 news feels too overwhelming.
It’s borderline impossible to do anything right now without hearing the word "coronavirus." Social media's buzzing with mentions of COVID-19; news sites can't keep up with the ever-developing updates; even stores and online retailers are running out of household items like bleach wipes and hand sanitizer.
The developing panic is real, especially when the only news being disseminated seems to be coronavirus news. And for people who already struggle with anxiety disorders, the daily reminders and updates about coronavirus sweeping the globe is only adding insult to injury.
Of course, coronavirus fears aren't entirely unfounded: According to Johns Hopkins University's COVID-19 tracker, more than 511,000 people worldwide have confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, including more than 76,000 in the US. More than half of the states in the nation are now experiencing community-spread, meaning people in an area are developing the illness, even though they don't know how or where, says the CDC.
While the CDC insists that your overall risk of contracting COVID-19 is low, that information alone is enough to trigger anxiety. But it turns out, what makes the coronavirus so anxiety-inducing is what we don't know about it, Gail Saltz, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the upcoming Personology podcast, tells Health. "Unfortunately, COVID-19 is exactly the type of thing that increases anxiety disproportionately in terms of its actual danger," she says. "This is because it’s new, therefore history with it is not there, making it feel more unknown and uncertain."
And given its newness, there are constant updates about the virus in the news—something that can make it feel extra threatening, says Saltz. "It is also invisible, which frightens people more than visible things…if you don’t know where and how you may get it, then it feels even less in your control,” she adds.
All of that's to say, of course, that anxiety surrounding the coronavirus outbreak is understandable, and while you can't control how the outbreak will pan out in the US, you can control how you react to it, while keeping yourself as safe as possible. Here are a few things you can do to keep your anxiety in check during the coronavirus outbreak.
1. Assess your own personal risk for contracting the coronavirus.
You can take a proactive role in your health (and anxiety levels) by figuring out your own personal risk for developing coronavirus. That means determining whether there have been confirmed or presumptive positive cases of the virus in your community, whether you've been exposed to anyone who's been ill recently, and whether you have immune issues or breathing problems that could put you at risk of complications if you were to contract the virus, Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety, tells Health.
Those steps aren't to make you even more anxious, but rather, give you a sense of control over your health and susceptibility to the illness. "This analysis of learned information and how it applies to you is important because it puts you in control," says Clark. “You aren’t just a passive recipient of scary information, but an active participant in judging what you’re learning."
2. Try to limit your coronavirus news consumption.
It's true: You should at least be aware that coronavirus is currently an issue, and know where it's showing up in relation to you. However, there is such a thing as too much news, and constantly reading coronavirus update stories isn't going to help your anxiety levels. "Limit your overall news intake to once every day or so if you find yourself triggered by news, and limit your attention to only reputable news sources," says Clark. "The more you expose yourself to a scary topic over which you feel limited control, the more you will feel anxious."
If you're unsure about which news sources are truly reputable, you're likely safest sticking to large, national, trustworthy media brands—newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post, and online outlets including CNN and NBC News are all constantly updating their coronavirus content, while the CDC refreshes their COVID-19 Situation Summary daily. As far as keeping track of possible outbreaks in your own region goes, stick to your trusted local news stations or newspapers, which are likely getting all of their information from other reputable sources.
3. Realize that it's totally OK to be worried about the coronavirus outbreak.
Coronavirus is scary and it’s OK to realize that. “Recognize that your anxiety is normal, but resist inflaming it,” Clark says. Stressing out over the fact that you’re stressed over coronavirus will only make your anxiety worse, she says.
Also important: If someone gives you grief for being anxious about coronavirus, it’s perfectly OK to call them out on it, Ken Yeager, PhD, a psychiatrist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Health. “Respond with, ‘Well, what are you doing to be prepared?’” he says. If they still insist on minimizing your fears, try to brush them off. “You can ignore them or not make it bigger than it needs to be,” says Yeager.
4. Follow the correct preventive methods to protect against the coronavirus.
If you find yourself feeling panicked each time you see a stranger wearing a face mask in public, remember this: The general public truly won't benefit from wearing face masks (yes, even those N95 respiratory masks—and even less so from surgical masks). The CDC does, however, recommend that people do the following to help prevent the spread of coronavirus and other respiratory viruses:
- Try to avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Try to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. (If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.)
Doing all of those things can help you feel more in control of the situation, Yeager says, which can help ease your anxiety.
5. Remind yourself that you're doing the best you can in this situation.
If you find yourself starting to get worked up over the virus in any given moment, Yeager recommends doing a “grounding technique” to calm down. That involves looking around you, recognizing when you’re in a safe space, like your home, and reminding yourself that you’re doing the best you can. “Know that you’re keeping your home clean and remind yourself that the coronavirus is not in a lot of states now,” he says.
If that doesn’t work, try to think about something that’s in front of you, like noticing a bird flying outside your window or how your desk at work feels beneath your hands. These can serve as good distractions to help break up the negative chain of anxious thinking.
If, despite trying these tips to help quell your coronavirus anxiety, you still feel overwhelmed with anxiety or that your coronavirus fears are interfering with your ability to go about your daily life, Saltz says it’s not a bad idea to talk to a mental health professional. “Some therapy can make a big difference in managing anxiety about all kinds of things, including the coronavirus,” she says.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.
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