Coronavirus Anxiety? Here’s Your Personal Rx
Do the fast-changing health headlines have you or your family on edge? Stay calm in the chaos by practicing these expert-approved strategies
Even if coronavirus hasn’t afflicted you or a loved one personally, it’s likely crept into all aspects of your life—home, work, and even your hobbies.
It doesn’t help that with each news report about COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, we move from mild anxiety to full-blown panic—and back again. Constant updates about new variants of the virus, some of which may be more contagious or deadly, only adds to the worry. Ultimately, we’re just not sure how any of this is going to play out.
And that’s the problem. “All our anxiety about the virus seems to come down to uncertainty,” says Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Annville, Pennsylvania. “But certainty is only a feeling, not a fact. We can’t ever feel 100 percent sure of anything. The new coronavirus outbreak makes this so explicit—but uncertainty is always part of life.”
If you’re struggling with coronavirus anxiety, you’re not alone. Take a deep breath and follow this advice from mental health experts.
Stay-Calm Trick #1: Worry Creatively
Worry is the ability to generate lots of negative outcomes in our minds, explains Catherine Pittman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.
“Worry was very helpful for our ancestors,” she says. “Let’s say they saw a tiger wandering around. Some of them might think, Oh, that’s interesting, [and] then carry on with whatever they were doing. Those people were less likely to survive. But the people who worried about the tiger tended to spring into action—they might stay up all night watching out for the tiger. We are the descendants of the worriers. We have worry circuits in our brains, but fortunately, we also have planning circuits.”
Use your coronavirus concerns to plan for the situations that could arise, like if you’re exposed and need to quarantine.
“You don’t need a perfect plan,” Pittman says. “You just need a plan. Too much worry activates your brain’s amygdala and makes you anxious. Replace the worry—and avoid the anxiety—with some act that’s positive.”
Stay-Calm Trick #2: Fight Fear With Facts
There’s a lot of crazy stuff floating around the internet, from unfounded conspiracy theories to outright misinformation. And all of it seems custom-designed to amp up your anxiety. Next time you find yourself going down an electronic rabbit-hole, just say no.
“Pick one trusted source of information, like the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or the WHO [World Health Organization], and stick with it,” advises Smedley.
Stay-Calm Trick #3: But Also, Go on a News Diet
Everybody’s on a news overload, especially when it comes to COVID-19. Keeping up with the latest can turn into a full-time job. “But it’s not likely that it’ll make you healthier or happier,” says Smedley. Instead, she suggests, consume your news in smaller portions.
“Give yourself permission to not watch the news constantly,” she says. “At first, it might seem that keeping abreast of every COVID-19 development is helping you connect with others and feel that you’re not alone. But at the same time, you may be experiencing much higher levels of stress and anxiety.”
The easiest way to do that might be to set a limit. “For some people,” Smedley explains, “that might be 15 minutes after work to talk about it to a friend or partner. Give yourself permission to share your worries and talk about the news—but then switch the subject.”
For limiting online activity, a great strategy is to set an alarm on your phone. When the alarm goes off, then it’s time for a news update about coronavirus. This helps place controls on the amount of COVID-19 information you consume, and prevents it from being the center of your attention whenever the thought pops into your head, Smedley says.
Stay-Calm Trick #4: See into the Future—Hypothetically
Imagination can be a powerful tool to calm your fears—and show you that you can handle whatever comes your way.
“For some people, it really helps to visualize a realistic scenario where they’re exposed to coronavirus and develop some flu-like symptoms,” says Smedley. “Imagine what you would do [and] how you would feel. Imagine yourself coping, and then looking back at [when you were sick], thinking: That was tough, but I got through it.”
Visualizing the outcomes can help you move beyond fear and find solutions. “If you’re anxious,” says Smedley, “you might not see yourself as being able to cope. But playing out that movie in your mind can give you a sense of control—it can help you realize through thought-experiment that you would actually have ways to cope.”
The information in this story is accurate as of press time and posting. To limit the spread of the coronavirus, it’s important to continue practicing social distancing (keeping at least 6 feet away from people outside your household) and washing your hands frequently. You should also be appropriately masked per CDC guidelines. Because the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, we encourage readers to follow the news and recommendations for their own communities by using the resources from the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department.