What Is 'Coronaphobia'?

An anxiety disorder that emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic brought many new terms and words into our lives: learning pod, COVID bubble, and social distancing, to name a few.

Another term we can add to that list is "coronaphobia." The researchers who helped coin the term in December 2020 said that coronaphobia is a new type of anxiety specific to COVID-19. Anxiety during a pandemic is expected. But when does that anxiety become a serious condition?

Here's everything you need to know about coronaphobia, including how to determine if your anxiety rises to the level of this disorder and what to do if it does.

What Does Coronaphobia Mean?

After analyzing nearly 500 studies that addressed the alarm and panic people were feeling during the pandemic, researchers defined coronaphobia as "an excessive triggered response of fear of contracting the virus causing COVID-19, leading to accompanied excessive concern over physiological symptoms, significant stress about personal and occupational loss, increased reassurance and safety seeking behaviors, and avoidance of public places and situations, causing marked impairment in daily life functioning."

The researchers listed several factors that can lead to coronaphobia. These include wallowing in all the uncertainties that come with the pandemic (like whether you'll get COVID-19 or if your paycheck is in jeopardy), adopting new practices and avoidance behavior, and the anxiety that can develop when you hear about world leaders and celebrities who have contracted the virus.

Una McCann, MD, professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and director of its Anxiety Disorders Program, told Health that "anxiety is a normal, healthy reaction to dangerous things." And it's a response that anyone can develop during times of stress, Dr. McCann explained.

To say that the pandemic has been stressful would be quite an understatement; research has shown that COVID-19-related worries have led to greater levels of anxiety. But how can you tell whether your or someone else's anxiety is a normal, healthy reaction to the pandemic or falls under the criteria for coronaphobia?

Coronaphobia or Regular Anxiety: How To Tell the Difference

Lily Brown, PhD, director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania, told Health that many people wonder if their anxiety level about COVID-19 is normal or if they're too worried about the virus. To help them figure it out, Brown tells patients to use their pandemic behavior as a marker.

"Essentially, are you able to do the things that you need to do to live a relatively fulfilled life? Are you able to connect with people? Are you able to get your groceries for the week? Are you able to fulfill the duties of your job if you've been able to maintain employment?" Brown said. "Oftentimes, what happens when people have anxiety disorders is their anxiety starts to spill over so that it increasingly becomes more and more challenging to follow through on their obligations and get their needs met."

Again, most people have felt anxiety during the pandemic. But if you notice that you're having a hard time meeting your commitments or completing must-do tasks because you're panicked about catching the virus (or worried that loved ones will get sick), these might be indications that you have coronaphobia—and professional support to help manage the anxiety could be effective, Brown said.

Who Is Most at Risk?

Brown's research has shown that, on average, women have reported more anxiety than men during the pandemic. This is for various reasons, including that women said they have greater anxiety than men about family members getting sick or inadvertently spreading the virus themselves.

Brown also found that younger people have experienced increased anxiety—not just because of the virus itself but due to the uncertain effect the pandemic can have on their future.

"[These groups] in particular should really be on the lookout for whether they start to experience any of that functional impairment," Brown said. "And if they are, it may be good to reach out for additional support."

Spending more time on social media—and consuming more media, in general—may also increase anxiety levels about the pandemic. "That doesn't mean avoid it altogether," Brown advised. "It just means that you would want to limit the amount of time you engage with it, not constantly checking in to see what the latest outrageous news is or what the latest social media battle is about."

How To Manage Anxiety During the Pandemic

Decades of research have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can effectively treat anxiety. Brown suggested searching the term with your zip code to find providers near you. Or you can use telehealth platforms to find a doctor or therapist specializing in CBT who isn't in your immediate area but can see you virtually.

Managing stress is important for your overall health. The CDC also offers ways to cope with stress, including taking care of your physical health, setting time aside to unwind, and connecting with others and community- or faith-based organizations.

Other interventions that are proven to help with anxiety are mindfulness-based stress reduction, meditation, acupuncture, and eventually—particularly if nonpharmaceutical interventions have failed to yield any benefit—pharmacological therapy. A particular family of medications, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, is a safe proven treatment for generalized anxiety disorder.

Taking care of both your mental and physical health during the pandemic is vital—and both are equally as important.

"I think this is really confusing for people, and people have received mixed messages about this, including messages where people are inadvertently told that their anxiety is more a problem than the virus itself, and I think that's really problematic messaging because there certainly is a real threat there with the virus," Brown said.

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