As death tolls rise from the global spread of a novel coronavirus, I have observed an increase in anxiety among my patients. To some degree, the increase in anxiety is appropriate to the context. Our anxiety increases when we are confronted with threats to our health. The coronavirus constitutes such a threat.
In this article, I present steps to help you cope with the increased anxiety stemming from the coronavirus.
1. Understand Your Odds
We often experience spikes in anxiety when we believe that a threat is imminent and unavoidable. Considering the extensive media coverage over the coronavirus, it may appear that the overall risk of being infected is very high.
A good practice to lower your anxiety is understanding what are the odds that your fear will become reality. Recognizing that there is a low probability that a fear will become reality reduces anxiety.
For example, let’s imagine that you identify a lump on your body and are concerned that it is cancer. You then follow up with your physician. You will experience a different level of anxiety if your physician reassures you that the mass has a 1% probability of being cancer compared to being told that there is an 90% probability that the mass is cancer.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for the majority of people, the immediate risk of being exposed to the coronavirus is low as there is not widespread circulation in most communities in the United States. Accepting this fact lowers anxiety.
2. Recognize What You Can Control
The continued coverage over the spreading coronavirus can make us feel helpless and powerless. One may feel that taking any action is futile. Such a stance will only exacerbate one’s level of anxiety over the potential threat.
Take a moment to recognize what is within your sphere of control. There are steps you can take to promote your safety and protect your loved ones. Taking such action does not only lower the odds that you will be infected. It can also make you feel empowered and give you a sense of control over the potential threat.
The CDC has published guidelines to protect the public from being infected and further spread the coronavirus. They include:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Avoid touching high-touch surfaces in public places — elevator buttons, door handles, handrails and handshaking with people.
- Wash your hands after touching surfaces in public places.
- Avoid touching your face, nose and eyes.
- Clean and disinfect your home to remove germs.
- Avoid crowds, especially in poorly ventilated spaces.
- Avoid all non-essential travel including plane trips and cruise ships.
3. Increase “The Dose” of Your Coping Skills
The use of healthy coping skills is critical for the management of anxiety. Using your coping skills becomes even more critical during times of heightened stress. Some of my favorite coping skills include:
- Journaling my thoughts and feelings
- Deep breathing exercises
During times of heightened stress, you may consider increasing “the dose” of your coping skills by using them more frequently. For example, if you typically exercise three times per week, you may consider exercising an extra day to help you better cope with anxiety. If you normally practice deep breathing exercises in the morning and at night, you may consider adding a third session during lunch.
We are accustomed to increasing the dose of a medication to treat a physical or mental health ailment. Why not look at coping skills in the same perspective and adjust “their dose” as necessary?
4. Limit Media Consumption
Remember that the media is in the business of making money. Their goal is to earn ratings. As a result, they may not always present the news objectively but in a manner that elicits an emotional reaction out of you. As the saying goes, “Sensationalism sells.”
If you want to stay updated on the latest news related to the coronavirus, do not blindly search for updates on the internet. Rather, follow credible sources such as the CDC or the World Health Organization (WHO). You can also contact your local healthcare provider.
5. Recognize the Cost of Anxiety
Our brains are really good at focusing on potential threats. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is what our brains are supposed to do. They are not designed to make us happy. They are designed to protect us by looking for potential threats and creating hypothetical “what if” scenarios.
As a result, we often fail to maintain perspective and see the big picture. However, there is a cost if we become prisoners to the anxiety stemming from the spreading coronavirus. Living in fear will negatively affect the quality of our lives. We have to find the balance between taking the proper precautions to protect ourselves and living fulfilling lives.
As a personal example, I have substituted exercise at the gym with running outdoors. I believe that such an adjustment strikes the proper balance between living a full life and also responding to the threat from the coronavirus in a responsible way.
To summarize, please take the proper precautions to protect yourself and your loved ones from the coronavirus. However, do not fall prisoner to the anxiety stemming from the virus. Use your coping skills wisely, limit media coverage and live your life to the fullest of your ability.
Finally, if your anxiety symptoms are interfering with your daily functioning or are experiencing difficulties with physical symptoms, please contact your local healthcare provider or mental health professional for further help. In case of a mental health emergency, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency department.