As H1N1 threatens to erupt as a full-blown epidemic, experts recommend strategies to help control the mental and emotional stress that accompanies widespread illness.
Making good decisions during times of illness is challenging but there are steps you can take to reduce anxiety and improve your psychological and physical health during this outbreak, says Josh Klapow, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Public Health.
“During times of crisis like a flu outbreak, if you can’t function psychologically and cognitively at a high level, you’re going to make not-good decisions – and you’re going to put yourself at risk for developing illness because of the stress,” Klapow says.
“It is critical for you to get a grip on yourself.”
He says coping is rooted in thinking clearly and balancing emotions so that a person can function normally at work, at home and elsewhere.
Simple strategies do help control anxiety, and they help protect you from catching the flu or spreading the virus, he says. Covering all coughs and sneezes with tissues or with the bend of the elbow and washing hands frequently with antibacterial soap or by using alcohol-based gels are good examples.
The very act of taking these simple measures over time is empowering to people when they are faced with flu uncertainty.
Klapow’s tips for coping with swine flu include:
- Keep a cool head. “This flu is an enemy we cannot see, and the fear created by that is palpable. Don’t let it carry you away. Stay calm, eat healthy, get enough sleep and strive for a routine balance in life,” Klapow says.
- Maintain perspective. “This involves a lot of self-talk or coaching oneself,” Klapow says. “Remind yourself often that swine flu is a very mild illness, and though some tragic cases occur, most people are not developing serious disease to the point where they have to go to the hospital.”
- Take simple action. “Get a grip on your anxiety by doing something. The small personal actions do work in terms of protecting you and the public from getting sick. This helps transforms worry into productive worry,” Klapow says.
- Focus on facts. “Make sure the information that you’re hearing is credible and accurate, not rumors or misstatements about flu and disease,” Klapow says. “It’s like a reality check. If you get sick, remind yourself you might be sick for five to six days, and then you’ll get better. This keeps anxiety from spiraling.”
Employers need to have clear sick-leave and time-off policies in the workplace as well as an honest organizational culture. A hard-work ethic and stay-healthy message can coexist if employers and managers project clarity in all communications and discussions on sickness and requesting time off, he says. Employees who are unclear about those policies should ask questions.
“Make sure it’s not a mixed message that employers are giving out, or that workers are somehow ‘reading between the lines’ of a sick-leave announcement,” Klapow says.
“Business is important, and everyone knows health is important. People should protect themselves and the workforce. Messages need to be meaningful and truthful.”