How You Can Measure Your Coronaphobia
Interview with Dr. Sherman Lee on his new Coronavirus Anxiety Scale.
Posted Jul 20, 2020
Understanding the mental health issues surrounding COVID-19 requires careful and thoughtful research and deliberation. Psychological tools and tests help assess these needs, including the Coronavirus Anxiety Scale.
Sherman A. Lee, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. He studies negative feeling states, such as anxiety and grief, and the role personality and religion play in those emotional experiences. He teaches courses in the psychology of personality, psychology of the human-animal bond (Anthrozoology), and the psychology of death, dying, and bereavement (Thanatology). He is the developer of many popular psychological instruments such as Trait Sympathy Scales, the Persistent Complex Bereavement Inventory, and most recently the Coronavirus Anxiety Scale and the Obsession With COVID-19 Scale.
JA: How did you first get interested in this topic?
SL: I became interested in the coronavirus crisis around February 2020 when news reports about the rapid spread of a mysterious virus started becoming more and more frequent. My youngest daughter, who has a weak immune system, was just recovering from a difficult flu and the notion that she could catch this deadly virus filled my wife and me with dread.
I knew that others, particularly “worriers” like myself, would start to have anxiety over this coronavirus. Some may even need psychological help to get through it, I thought. Knowing how emotionally painful and debilitating fear and anxiety can be in people’s lives, I began the project of developing a test to identify those who may need help with this specific form of anxiety, also known as “coronaphobia.” As a developer of psychological instruments, I thought this could be a significant contribution to our global effort to fight this pandemic.
JA: What was the focus of your study?
SL: On March 11th to the 13th I collected online survey data from 775 adults who experienced significant fear and anxiety over the coronavirus. Using this sample, I was able to statistically isolate 5 fear and anxiety symptoms that could distinguish between people who are “clinically” anxious about the coronavirus from people who are worried but not functionally impaired by their emotions.
These five symptoms—which are dizziness, sleep disturbances, tonic immobility, appetite loss, and nausea/abdominal distress—reflect strong physiological reactions to fear and anxiety and form the basis of the Coronavirus Anxiety Scale (CAS). What is unique about this study is that it is the first scientific study of coronaphobia as a clinical condition and one of the first to study the fear and anxiety of people who were actually infected with the disease.
JA: What did you discover in your study?
SL: Results from this study show that the CAS is suitable as a mental health evaluation tool. The results also showed that people suffering from coronaphobia experienced high levels of hopelessness, spiritual crisis, and suicidal ideation. These individuals also tended to cope with their anxiety by using alcohol or drugs and were disabled by their fear and anxiety. Basically, this study showed that coronaphobia is “real” and should be taken seriously by health professionals and policymakers.
JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?
SL: Although I expected coronavirus anxiety to be associated with social attitudes, as anxiety tends to color how we see the world, I did not expect to find that coronavirus anxiety was positively correlated with approval of President Trump’s responses to the coronavirus outbreak. That is, people who were the most anxious about the coronavirus were also the most satisfied with how President Trump was dealing with the pandemic.
Although this finding seemed counterintuitive to me, it may reflect what social and political psychologists call the “conservative shifts” phenomenon, where existential fear tends to move people toward supporting conservative leadership. Although this is not my area of expertise, I am looking forward to learning more about this phenomenon.
JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?
SL: Recognize that coronaphobia is real, overwhelmingly unpleasant, and can have a detrimental impact on one’s day-to-day life. Also, recognize that mental health professionals can provide a person suffering from this form of anxiety with appropriate treatment and support.
JA: How can readers use what you found to help others amidst this pandemic?
SL: Knowledge is power. You can help people understand that mental health conditions should be taken seriously and coronaphobia is just one of many psychological concerns that is tied to this infectious disease outbreak. Be sensitive and supportive of those who live with fear and anxiety over the coronavirus. Try not to minimize or invalidate their emotional experiences.
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
SL: Currently, I am helping medical professionals, researchers, and specialists from around the world with their COVID-19 related assessments and screening protocols. I am also providing support for scholars who are translating and validating the CAS for use in their countries.
Lee, S. A. (2020). Coronavirus Anxiety Scale: A brief mental health screener for COVID-19 related anxiety. Death Studies, 44(7), 393-401. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2020.1748481