How To Cope with coronavirus anxiety During This Challenging Time
It’s time to address a new problem surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic: coronavirus anxiety. As I am writing this, my phone just alerted me of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in my home county (Luzerne County, PA).
It was inevitable that it would show up and impact my local community. In fact, during a recent staff meeting I predicted that we would see our first case in our community in under two weeks. I mentally prepared the staff for delayed shipments of supplies, issues with availability of materials we need to order, and disruptions to our schedules. The speed with which everything is happening is overwhelming.
My last few weeks have been filled with news updates and preparation for the arrival of the coronavirus. It is impossible to do anything without hearing about it. It consumes my social media page, conversations with co-workers, patients, friends, and family. News sites are having difficulty keeping up with the updates. Stores are short on bleach wipes, hand sanitizer, towels, and toilet paper. People are buying up all of the canned goods. There is an overall feeling of anxiety and stress in the air.
Depending on your age and health status, the CDC insists that your overall risk of having serious health complications from COVID-19 is low. However, that information alone is enough to trigger anxiety. “What makes the coronavirus anxiety inducing is what we don’t know about it”, said Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.
“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. 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.
While we can’t control the worldwide spread of the virus, we can control how we react to it (while keeping ourselves as safe as possible.) After learning as much as I can to reduce the risk of contracting it and keeping my patients as safe as possible, I searched for ways to reduce my stress and anxiety.
Assess Your Personal Risk For Contracting The Coronavirus
John M. Grohol, PsyD, reports “Our brains are used to taking something that is made to sound scary and unknown, and inflating the risk of it actually happening to us. It’s a part of our brain’s intrinsic, built-in, fight-or-flight response. Big and scary gets attention. Ordinary but also potentially bad for our well-being gets less attention. We’re scared of getting mauled by a coyote but think nothing of getting into an automobile and driving every day. This despite the chances of dying in an automobile crash being much higher.”
One way to take a proactive role in your health (and anxiety levels) is to figure out your own personal risk for developing coronavirus. Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety states, “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. 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. You aren’t just a passive recipient of scary information, but an active participant in judging what you’re learning.”
Limit Your Coronavirus News Consumption
While it is important to be aware that the coronavirus is an issue and understand your risks, it is also vital that you unplug. There is such a thing as too much news, and constantly reading updates will most likely raise your coronavirus 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 Dr. Clark. “The more you expose yourself to a scary topic over which you feel limited control, the more you will feel anxious.”
It is generally best to look towards sources that are truly reputable. Some people recommend using large, national, trustworthy media brands such as CNN and NBC News. Also, the CDC refreshes their COVID-19 summary daily. As far as keeping track of possible outbreaks in your own region goes, look towards your trusted local news stations or newspapers, which are likely getting all of their information from other reputable sources.
Keep in mind that the longer you watch or read something, the more money a company makes. This includes content that is online, on the TV, or on your phone. Coronavirus anxiety is a great opportunity for companies, as they work to scare you into believing that this outbreak is something you need to worry about constantly each and every minute. While it’s important to stay informed, limit your consumption of media and stories related to the outbreak and make time to unplug each day.
Recognize That It’s Normal To Be Worried About The Outbreak
This virus is frightening, and it’s normal to be concerned. “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.”
Follow The Recommended Preventive Methods To Protect Against The Coronavirus
The CDC has recommendations for healthcare professionals to follow at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/hcp/index.html
For the general public, they recommend at this time:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
- If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick
- Put distance between yourself and other people if COVID-19 is spreading in your community. This is especially important for people who are at a higher risk of getting very sick.
- Stay home if you are sick, except to get medical care.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
- Throw used tissues in the trash.
- If you cough or sneeze into your hand, immediately wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, clean your hands with a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- If you are sick: You should wear a facemask when you are around other people (e.g., sharing a room or vehicle) and before you enter a healthcare provider’s office. If you are not able to wear a facemask (for example, because it causes trouble breathing), then you should do your best to cover your coughs and sneezes, and people who are caring for you should wear a facemask if they enter your room. Learn what to do if you are sick.
- If you are NOT sick: You do not need to wear a facemask unless you are caring for someone who is sick (and they are not able to wear a facemask). Facemasks may be in short supply and they should be saved for caregivers.
- Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.
- If surfaces are dirty, clean them: Use detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.
- If you are sick, follow the steps outlined on the CDC website: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/steps-when-sick.html
By doing all of the things recommended, you will reduce anxiety and feel more in control.
Follow Common Everyday Stress Reducing Techniques to Combat Coronavirus Anxiety
Continue to do the things that have kept your stress under control in the past and consider adding some additional habits.
There is a lot of evidence that daily exercise can help promote feelings of well-being as well as boost your immunity, and studies have found that physical activity protects against symptoms of anxiety. During this time walk your dog, follow an online fitness routine, or engage in any other form of exercise that you enjoy.
What you eat can also help improve your outlook. A recent study found that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein helped reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety among a group of young adults.
“Eating sugar and ultra-processed food increases inflammation and suppresses immune function,” says Mark Hyman, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. So now may be a good time to lay off the Cheetos and sweets.
Adding yoga and/or meditation to your routine can also be helpful in reducing stress and anxiety. Researchers in one study found that after three months of daily yoga and meditation practices, participants had higher levels of BDNF, lower CAR scores, and reduced levels of inflammation. In other words, they were less stressed and better equipped to handle stress when it occurred.
As I finish this article, we have just made the difficult and heart-wrenching decision to close our outpatient physical therapy clinic and gym temporarily in order to do our part in the community to stop the spread of the virus and reduce the chance of overwhelming our local medical centers in the upcoming weeks (as well as protect our patients, staff, and gym members.) While I know it is the right thing to do at this time, it fills me with sadness, anxiety and frustration. I find that connecting with others has helped immensely to reduce these feelings and cope with a situation that we may not be able to control, but can craft a reasonable action plan in response.
Much love to everyone during this difficult time.