If you’re not sure how to handle the onslaught of news, panic, fear and anxiety about the coronavirus — you’re not alone. The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak means life has changed for all of us. It may cause you to feel anxious, stressed, worried, sad, bored, lonely or frustrated.
It’s important to remember it is acceptable to feel this way and that everyone reacts differently — for most of us these problematic feelings will pass. Psychiatrists say there is a universal presence of anxiety due to the coronavirus, but specific categories of people are highly vulnerable.
We don’t know how we’ll be impacted or how bad things might get. And that makes it all too easy to catastrophize and spiral out into overwhelming dread and panic. But there are many things you can do according to medical experts to cope with the uncertainty that’s accompanying COVID-19.
Facts will minimize your fear. It’s essential to be wary of where you’re getting your news. With all the headlines of news outlets there’s a risk of an infodemic where misinformation spreads. It can lead to increased anxiety and fear.
Catherine Belling, PhD, an Associate Professor of Medical Education at Northwestern University, explains that for those with anxiety, imaginations can often jump straight to worst-case scenarios or confusion if you’re not relying on trusted sources.
Different resources work best for different people and that’s critical to keep in mind as well. Suppose you’re a parent wanting to talk to your children about COVID-19, for example. In that case, resources like comics, courtesy of NPR, can help explain the situation in easy-to-understand terms and a reassuring tone. You can also lookup to The World Health Organization and your National authority for reliable information.
Reading about the political and economic implications of COVID-19 can also induce anxiety, Belling mentions. Just remember that ultimately only you can be the judge of what you need to know — and it’s okay if you need to set limits on that.
“It’s not realistic to hunker down and cut yourself off from everything at this point because the harm caused to your life would probably outweigh the potential harm caused to you by the virus,” Belling explains. “The most control we all have is basic, unspectacular hygiene and being patient.”
Because things are uncertain, remember to hold onto the facts that we do have at our disposal. What we know: COVID-19 does not affect everyone equally. The CDC reports that if you’re older or have an underlying health condition — like heart disease, lung disease or diabetes — you could be at a higher risk of serious illness. The recommendation for these populations currently is the same: avoid contact with others who are sick and wash your hands frequently.
When you feel yourself getting caught up in fear of what might happen, try to shift your focus to things you can control. For example, you can’t control how severe the coronavirus outbreak is in your city or town, but you can take steps to reduce your risk (and the risk you’ll unknowingly spread it to others), such as:
But overall, accept that so much of the COVID-19 outbreak is out of your control. And understand your anxiety comes from a place of wanting to make sense of uncertainty — which is human.
“Anxiety hates waiting and thrives on not knowing what’s going to happen next,” Belling says. “So that’s the real challenge, and it’s where all the usual anxiety-calming strategies come into play.”
When you feel your anxiety creeping in, try to make it your cue to turn to some mindfulness techniques to help you feel grounded again. There are many different things you can do to ease any worry spirals. You can try tactics like the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise, use one of the 4 R’s to direct your anxiety elsewhere, find a quiet space to take a break or use different questions to combat the negative voice in your head that might be perpetuating fear. Whatever you do to practice self-care — whether it’s through meditations, exercise or your routines — try to keep up with those habits now more than ever.
Cultivating hope in times of fear can be challenging, but there are ways we can shift our mindset to make our anxiety feel less intense.
“We do not see the stories of recovery,” said Ken Carswell, Technical Officer, World Health Organization. “We need to shift narratives away from the number of deaths toward the number of recoveries.”
Instead of focusing on the number of deaths, we need to shift the narratives to the number of recoveries. There usually seems to be a scarcity of positive stories about coronavirus and those who recover. And an abundance of negative uncertain stories and headlines. A sense of hope instead of fear could allow leaders and everyday citizens to stay calm, making better cooperation with one another — a vital element in defeating this outbreak. Also, give yourself permission to imagine if the feared outcome does occur — meaning you get COVID-19 — that it could be handled and you could be fine.
“The whole meaning of anxiety is that it is uncertain, which means that it always includes the possibility that the best will happen,” Belling says.
As Aiysha Malik, a Technical Officer at the World Health Organization’s Mental Health and Substance Use Department explained in a live-streamed Q&A session this week, “It’s really important to think about mental health as part of the public health response to COVID-19.”
She argued: “People who might be vulnerable to experiencing stress during this time might include people who have preexisting mental health conditions or substance use conditions or who might represent other vulnerable groups. We’re not just talking about protection from COVID-19, but we’re also talking about prevention of stress and fear during this event.”
Sometimes, anxieties can manifest in ways that hurt others. Because COVID-19 first appeared in China, people who are or appear to be Asian are now the target of spreading xenophobia, racism and discrimination — and some are even experiencing hate crimes. This phenomenon isn’t new, but it’s an opportunity to practice empathy. If you see someone experiencing microaggressions, step in if you feel comfortable enough to do so.
Arm yourself with facts from the CDC and share that “being of Asian descent does not increase the chance of getting or spreading COVID-19”. Take time to listen to others who are experiencing xenophobia or racism right now. They are also going through the same things as you.
Overall, remember that any anxiety you’re experiencing is normal. But by setting boundaries, cultivating hope, practising empathy and remembering what you can and can’t control, you can care for your mental and emotional health throughout this outbreak.
There is a resource developed by Shine and Mental Health America for coping with anxiety and mental health in this global climate of uncertainty.