Coronavirus Anxiety: 4 Ways to Cope with Fear
As the coronavirus spreads, more and more people are becoming anxious about what it means in their life. After all, entire cities have been quarantined in China. Travel restrictions have been put in place throughout the world.
It’s perfectly normal to feel anxiety about this emerging health crisis. The coronavirus can be a deadly disease, but we also know that it’s most likely to be deadly in people who already have a weakened immune system.
Here’s how to cope with the anxiety and fear surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.
1. Don’t Inflate the Risk
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.
So a new virus outbreak is scarier than an existing health epidemic. Many news outlets and other sources of information online and social media overemphasize the problem — and its accompanying risks.
The ordinary flu is so far responsible for 15 million infections, 140,000 hospitalizations, and 8,200 deaths in the United States just this season. In comparison, as of January 31, 2020, the coronavirus has only infected approximately 8,000 people around the world (the vast majority of them in China) with less than 200 deaths. It is believed the coronavirus’s death rate may be around 2 percent, according to Reuters.1
In short, the flu is far more common and so kills far more people every year. While the coronavirus may be more deadly, it’s not clear that it will infect as many people as the flu does.
Update: As of the end of March 2020, we have over 558,000 cases worldwide and over 25,000 deaths. Experts are saying this is a very contagious strain of the novel coronavirus and declared it a pandemic weeks after this column was published. While the risk is very real, you can still take active steps to protect yourself and your loved ones from contracting the COVID-19 disease.
Practice social distancing and take it seriously. Keep socializing virtual only — no get-togethers, no dates, no play dates for your children. Wash your hands regularly, especially if you need to go out. Minimize your car trips when you do have to restock groceries or essentials to no more than once per week. Use mail order, online, or telephone services to obtain needed goods, medications, or services as much as possible.
And stop touching your face. The virus is spread through coughs, sneezes, and touching surfaces contaminated with the virus.
2. Take Normal, Healthy Precautions
Both flu and coronaviruses are spread through everyday contact, through touch, a cough, or a sneeze. If you’re sick, stay home and don’t go to work or out in the world. If you’re not sick, stay away from close contact with a person who is and engage in healthy habits when it comes to cleanliness.
That primarily means washing your hands regularly and thoroughly. Out running errands? Come home and wash your hands, saying the ABC song in your head as you do. Use warm-to-hot water, plenty of soap, and don’t stop washing until the song is done. Can’t get to a sink? Carry a small travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer with you (keep it in your car if you prefer), and use it regularly.
Keeping your immune system happy and healthy can help too, especially if you do get sick. A healthy immune system starts with a balanced diet and getting the amount of sleep you need to feel well-rested every night. Engaging in regular exercise is also important, even in the winter.
3. Avoid Overconsumption of Media
The longer you watch or read something, the more money a company makes, whether it’s online, on the TV, or on your phone. The coronavirus 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 right this very minute.
It’s not. So instead of playing into their hands, limit your consumption of media and stories related to the outbreak. Scientists and public health officials are working overtime to better understand the virus and are looking at ways to limit its impact. Trust in their work and efforts.
If you need updates, check out a government resource for the best, most accurate information, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
4. Use Your Past Coping Skills
No matter what the focus of one’s anxiety, using what’s worked in the past to help manage those feelings is usually a good bet. Maybe it’s engaging in self-talk, to undo the irrational thoughts coming into your head with rational, fact-based responses. Maybe it’s reaching out to a trusted friend or family member, just to talk through your anxiety. Or maybe it’s engaging in some mindfulness or meditation techniques — ones that you’ve learned and that have worked for you in the past.
Whatever works to help relieve your stress and reduce your anxiety, try to do more of that in times like this, when you feel like the stress of this virus outbreak is getting to you.
Remember, outbreaks like this do occur from time to time throughout the world. It’s normal. While they can be very scary — especially if you live in a highly-infected area — the actual chances of your becoming infected are very small if you take common-sense precautions.
This column was originally published on January 31, 2020 and has been updated to reflect the changing situation.
Learn More & Stay Informed
World Health Organization: Daily situation reports
Data visualization (may reinforce fears, however): 2019-nCoV Global Cases by Johns Hopkins CSSE
- Of course, the coronavirus infection and death rates will increase with each passing week. The question is whether it will ever become a true worldwide pandemic, which is not at all clear at this time. [↩]
Grohol, J. (2020). Coronavirus Anxiety: 4 Ways to Cope with Fear. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 30, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/coronavirus-anxiety-4-ways-to-cope-with-fear/