It’s been three months since the first case of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, was identified, and since that time, more than 100,000 people have been infected. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, there have been 109,578 confirmed cases—and that’s enough to make anyone nervous.
I’ve lived with generalized anxiety disorder for 18 years, but thanks to the panic surrounding coronavirus, I have never felt more on edge. My psychiatrist is on speed dial. I spent the greater part of yesterday shopping for supplies and making an emergency plan. I’ve even cancelled unnecessary engagements and considered pulling my daughter out of school.
That said, I am not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), the coronavirus has caused a notable uptick in cases of situational anxiety, or anxiety caused by new events. In fact, a quick Google search for the term “coronavirus anxiety” yields nearly 600 million results.
Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, explains that situational anxiety can be sparked by a specific or new situation. “Public speaking, for example, can trigger situational anxiety, as can catastrophic events, like coronavirus.”
The website for ADAA confirms that, “for many in our public community…the current coronavirus outbreak is triggering increased anxiety.” And the reason is two-fold.
“Anxiety is fueled by uncertainty and/or a lack of control,” Dr. Rebecca Cowan, the owner of Anchor Counseling & Wellness and a professor at Walden University, says. “And this uncertainty is one of the primary reasons why so many individuals are feeling anxious about the coronavirus.” But that’s not all. As Dr. Saltz explains, the perceived risk is also high.
“No one knows how many people will get this virus. You can’t tell who has it,” she says. “And you can’t tell who will be okay or who will get very sick.”
The good news is there is a lot you can do to calm your mind and shut down the situational anxiety associated with the coronavirus. Here are a few strategies to feel more at ease.
First: Learn the facts about coronavirus.
Since anxiety thrives on the unknown—or a fear of the unknown—it’s important to understand what’s factual versus what’s just speculation or rumor. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention explains on their website that “coronaviruses are generally spread through respiratory droplets,” expelled from the nose or mouth.
But how does coronavirus spread, exactly? Seema Lakdawala, a virologist who studies flu transmission at the University of Pittsburgh, tells NPR the most common method is mouth-to-mouth or hand-to-mouth contact.
“You contract COVID-19 through shaking hands or kissing somebody who is sick.” Inhaling the droplets that are produced when another person coughs or sneezes can also cause you to become infected.
Does this mean you should immediately stock up on face masks? Not necessarily.
“[The] CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19.” Instead, individuals should take “everyday preventive actions,” like washing your hands frequently, and for at least 20 seconds—especially before eating and/or touching your face, and after using the bathroom. You should also avoid kissing and shaking hands with individuals who are visibly sick.
Of course, the more we learn about this virus, the more details emerge. If you’re looking to stay as informed about the coronavirus as possible, the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been updating their websites daily.
That said, you should avoid 24-hour news.
Staying informed is important, but too much information can exacerbate anxiety—especially when said information is available 24/7. To help narrow the endless amount of media that can be consumed, consider setting google news alerts for anything that’s actually relevant to you, specifically. Think: school closings in your town, or updates that will actually impact your life. Or, schedule times to check-in on the news—and only check-in during pre-appointed periods.
“Watching the news and reading coronavirus-related articles can cause unnecessary distress,” Julia Colangelo, a licensed clinical social worker and adjunct professor at Columbia University says. She suggests limiting your screen time or exposure to the news, and the University Health Services at Berkeley College has made a similar recommendation.
“Take a break from the news [and social media] in order to focus on the things that are positive in your life,” the College’s website reads. Engage in beloved hobbies, spend time with family and friends, or do something upbeat—anything that will distract you from the growing noise surrounding this conversation. The best part? The College notes these habits can and will “improve your overall emotional and physical well-being.”
Also, you can and should feel free to excuse yourself from counterproductive conversations—at work, school, or the grocery store. Ask friends and family members to keep non-essential coronavirus updates to themselves, and mute any peers who have been posting extreme stories that have been cluttering your social media news feeds.
While many of us are unable to make contingency plans—most jobs require employees to be onsite (or in the office)—the best way to combat anxious thoughts is to gain some semblance of control by strategizing.
“Anxiety thrives on the unknown because anxious thoughts attempt to race into the future and predict outcomes,” Jennifer Agee, a licensed clinical counselor, says. As such, try to get a handle on what is (and isn’t) in your power.
Discuss with your partner, spouse, and/or other family members what you will do if school closes, or work interruptions occur. Keep basic supplies on hand—soap, prescriptions, and shelf-stable foods. According to Ready.gov, the government’s disaster and emergency preparedness website, these items are key if a quarantine occurs. Plus, anything you find comforting. (Frozen pizza, perhaps?) Carry hand sanitizer if you commute or do not have access to soap and water. Talk to your employer about what they are doing to protect you from COVID-19, and discuss work-from-home options in the event that you fall ill or a quarantine occurs.
Find creative ways to burn off nervous energy.
Is stillness making you shaky? Are you finding silence off-putting? If so, look for creative outlets. “Taking time to engage will help you keep your baseline anxiety low,” Dr. Cowan says. Read a juicy romance novel that whisks you…anywhere else. Cook a meal, write in a gratitude journal, or do as Goldie Hawn does and shake it to Dance Monkey in your living room. And consider hobbies which use your mind, like crossword puzzles, or, coloring, which can alleviate anxiety. It doesn’t matter what you do—just to do something other than endlessly refresh Twitter.
If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, you know the condition can—and does—affect your sleep. In fact, suggesting you get more sleep probably seems insulting. However, try and maintain a normal sleep schedule. “Do things to relax your body, which will in turn relax your mind,” Dr. Saltz says. Take a soothing bath, sip one of these teas with known soporific properties, and/or meditate. Apps like Headspace, Calm, and 10% Happier, all offer evening practices. Light candles or incorporate essential oils into your routine, as aromatherapy has proven health benefits. Mandarin oil, for example, can calm the body and—according to a 2015 study—promote restful sleep. And—again—avoid the news and blue light before bed, as the latter can affect your circadian rhythm.
Recognize and acknowledge distorted thoughts.
Catastrophic thinking is a tell-tale symptom of anxiety, but according to Dr. Cowan, the best way to manage anxiety related to coronavirus is to admit that while your fears are fact-based, your thoughts are not.
“When anxious, people tend to ‘catastrophize,’ meaning, they only focus on the worst-case scenarios and ignore the positives. Instead of focusing on the small, yet still significant, risk of mortality—which currently hovers somewhere between 1 -3.5 percent—individuals should shift their focus and remember that 80 percent of people who are infected experience only a mild illness.”
Remind yourself you are doing your best to prevent contracting Coronavirus.
While there is only so much you can do to prevent the spread of coronavirus (which is, as a reminder, to “wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds,” according to the CDC), your efforts should not be minimized.
“If you are following all of the aforementioned guidelines, like distancing yourself from infected individuals and washing your hands, remind yourself that anxiety beyond problem solving is just anxiety,” Dr. Saltz says. “It is not an actual problem you can do something about.”
Does that mean you’re helpless? No. In addition to taking actions to protect your physical well-being, you can protect your mental health by avoiding excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol, which can aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks. You can take a few, deep breaths, as intentional breathing can help center you and shift your attention from your mind to your body. In fact, a 2017 study found diaphragmatic breathing can alleviate stress and help balance cortisol levels. You can also use various tools to challenge negative thoughts and beliefs, i.e. instead of focusing on “what if I get sick,” think about all the reasons you have to be grateful.
If necessary, seek additional help.
If, after trying these tactics, you are unable to get a handle on your anxiety and/or said anxiety is interfering with your daily life, consider seeking additional help. BetterHelp and Talkspace will connect you with a therapist immediately, and virtually. Crisis Text Line puts trained crisis counselors at your fingertips—and with the push of a proverbial button. And for more information about mental health programs and resources, you can contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.
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