Updated: Mar 5, 2020
The CDC recently declared the spread of the Coronavirus to the US as inevitable, and the first case of infection in the United States without a clear source of exposure was recently reported. The virus is very contagious---but the sense of hysteria and panic around the disease have spread even faster. Getting caught up in the contagion anxiety before there is any clear and immediate risk can lead to constant worries, sleep difficulties and feelings of sadness and hopelessness. When we spend too much time worrying about something we cannot change, anxiety can easily spiral out of control, leading to irrational behaviors and feelings of despair.
Anxiety is our body's warning system: When we start to worry, and when we feel the physical sensations that often accompany anxiety--heart racing, shallow and rapid breathing, trembling or other uncomfortable body sensations, our mind is signaled to be on high alert. When the danger is real, this response is protective. Our adrenaline starts pumping and we take action--"a flight or fight response" to get out of a dangerous situation. But for those of us who struggle with anxiety, sometimes our warning system misfires. Either we see danger in a situation that is not really so, or our warning system stays on high alert for too long--and our mind and bodies become so consumed with the sensations of anxiety that we may be paralyzed from taking effective action.
The coronavirus is a serious and dangerous virus. It seems to be easily transmitted and can be deadly, especially in older adults and immunocompromised individuals. Based on our observation of how rapidly and widely it has spread in other countries, it is reasonable to anticipate that it will spread to the US. These thoughts are anxiety provoking and reasonably so. But, in order to keep functioning, we must not be paralyzed by the anxiety. We must find a way to tolerate that information and hold it in our minds while also continuing our lives and ensuring our safety.
1. Identify irrational thinking and step back from anxiety's grip:
When we are anxious, we tend to think in irrational and extreme ways. We may jump to conclusions, catastrophize the worst case scenario and have trouble thinking in a balanced manner. Take a step back and consider what thoughts or ideas about coronavirus trigger the greatest anxiety for you. Do you have images of yourself or someone you love getting sick, or possibly dying? Do you worry about an apocalypse, a breakdown of society, or not having access to basic needs or medical supplies? These are terrifying and distressing ideas, but saying them aloud can diminish their power over us. Write down the worried thoughts that cause you the most anxiety. Now, try to step back from that anxiety and evaluate these statements in a more objective manner. Is this a valid worry, or are you jumping to the worst case scenario or thinking in extreme terms? Practice rewriting this worry in a more balanced and less extreme manner. For example, if you have anxious thoughts like "I'm going to get infected and die" try to reframe them in a more balanced manner: "This is a dangerous virus, so when it becomes more widespread in my area, I'm going to have to be cautious to keep myself and my family safe." When you catch yourself getting caught up in worries and spiraling out of control, remind yourself of the more balanced and reasonable counter thought. It may help to write it down and keep it in your wallet or as a note on your phone--a physical reminder to anchor you when you feel your anxieties becoming irrational.
If your anxiety is so high that it is hard to think rationally about these fears, it can sometimes help to imagine giving advice to a friend. If your friend called you crying and said "Coronavirus is here and the world is going to end", would you accept this as rational?Thinking in a more balanced and less emotional manner allows us to regain control. The first, irrational worry is one over which we have no control. The second, more reasonable response leaves room for action.
2. Create an action plan:
Now that you have practiced finding a more reasonable, balanced thinking process around the virus' spread, make necessary plans and take appropriate action
Take care of your health now. If you haven't gotten a flu vaccine, do so. Don't push off visiting your doctor for fear of being around other sick people. Become more aware and practice hand hygiene. Wash your hands frequently.
The level of preparation you take will vary with your situation. It is always a good idea to have a safety plan. Think about the preparations you would want to make in anticipation of any natural disaster or personal crisis. Discuss with your support network who could help out if you fell sick or had to be isolated from your children. These are difficult but necessary conversations that any parent should be having. Use the coronavirus as an impetus to make responsible plans for worst case scenarios.
If you or a family member is elderly or immunocompromised, make sure to have adequate supplies of necessary medications, and do stock up on staples like nonperishable food so that if the illness becomes more widespread, you can minimize risk of exposure. Follow recommendations from the government about what precautions to take. Wearing masks when out in public may be a good idea in the future, but the CDC will make those recommendations and provide supplies to those who need them. Wearing a mask right now may create a false sense of security and trigger anxiety in others without offering true protection for a threat that isn't yet present.
3. Turn off the news.
The sensationalized headlines in the media and the 24/7 news cycle can make a threat seem much closer than it really is. I am not advocating blissful oblivion. Avoiding any news of the virus' spread would be irresponsible and just a different way for anxiety to make us act irrationally. But constantly checking the news can heighten our anxiety without any benefit. So, find out what you need to know and then turn the channel. Preferably, to something that will make you smile, laugh or provide good distraction from your anxiety. If it's too hard to peel yourself away, or if you find the news stories to be too anxiety provoking, then appoint your partner, parent or some other important person in your life to be your "news liaison" and keep abreast of relevant updates and recommended precautions.
4. Distract and Destress
Practice coping techniques to help distract from your anxiety and destress. There are lots of great techniques to help distract and destress: guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, coloring, going for a brisk walk, watching a funny show or calling a friend. Think about activities that bring you pleasure and consider engaging in one of them next time you are feeling anxiety.
Consider learning new techniques such as relaxation breathing:
Take slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Place one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Try to take deep enough breaths to make your belly rise and fall more than your chest. Close your eyes and focus on the sensations of the breath entering and leaving your body. If worries pop into your head, observe them and let them float away like a balloon in the wind. Many people find practicing relaxation breathing for 3 minutes in the morning when you first wake up and right before you go to bed can help you to carry a sense of calm with you throughout your day.
5. Find Meaning and Connection
Having a deeper sense of purpose or a sense of connection to others can help steady us when anxiety makes us waver. For some, this connection may come from religion. If this resonates with you, consider praying or attending a religious service. For others, it may come from a sense of community, a greater purpose or helping others. Pick up the phone and connect with someone you love. Offer to pick up supplies for an elderly neighbor or volunteer your help in some other way. Showing compassion to others helps us be more compassionate with ourselves, when we need it most.
Finally, if you continue to struggle with anxiety, are having trouble sleeping, or are otherwise distressed, ask for help. Many people struggle in silence, thinking they should be able to "will themselves" out of their worries or that there is no other way to feel, given the situation. But, it's ok to ask for help, and sometimes getting treatment for anxiety can help you reclaim your life. Stay safe, stay well, and most importantly, stay calm.