10 Ways To Take Control of Your Coronavirus Anxiety

Here are 10 specific coping techniques for these strange, difficult times.

Posted Mar 20, 2020

You've seen the news; you know all about the coronavirus and COVID-19. You know its symptoms, its typical presentation. You're keeping track of the number of cases in your area. You've learned about the importance of social distancing; you've stockpiled hand sanitizer; you've been washing your hands the right way, for the right amount of time. But what can you do to reduce the anxiety you're feeling every day?

Nathan Byrnes / US Air Force / CC0
Source: Nathan Byrnes / US Air Force / CC0

To begin with, recognize that you're not alone. As Simon Rego at Montefiore Medical Center told CNBC Make It, the coronavirus pandemic is having broad and wide-ranging effects on nearly everyone—whether or not they already experience underlying anxiety.

When the news is full of reminders of the coronavirus's ease of transmission, and the number of people who have fallen ill or died, it's very easy to ruminate on current events. To counteract this tendency, then, it may help to deliberately consume the news in a less anxiety-provoking way. Gail Saltz, a Cornell professor of psychiatry, told that coronavirus news is especially worrisome because it is invisible, and not yet well understood: It's very easy to develop intense fears of the unknown or of those things you cannot see or predict—and, therefore, cannot control. 

This sense of unknowability can drive many people to the Internet, where they resort to Twitter, Reddit, or other, even less reliable sources in an effort to get the most current information—but which is likely having a paradoxical effect and making them more anxious still. Information-dense times like these, as Joshua Morganstein, Chair of the American Psychiatric Association's Committee on Psychiatric Dimensions of Disasters, told CNBC, can lead to a feeling of drowning in chaotic, scary, sometimes contradictory information. If you're feeling this way, you should limit your media exposure to a few sources that you know well, can rely on, and trust.

As an article on The Conversation suggests, try turning off your automatic notifications about the coronavirus, and remove it from your news feed if you can. By reducing your coronavirus news diet, you may be able to think more clearly about it—something that has always been difficult for human beings to do. "The hysteria is far more contagious than the actual virus," a physician at Montefiore Medical Center recently advised me.  

Generally speaking, as Samuel Paul Veissière, Ph.D., reports in Psychology Today, human beings are not very good at using statistics to arrive at rational conclusions. When we're confronted by dangerous situations, we go into fight-or-flight mode—an endocrinological state that has the effect of "switching off" the more rational decision-making areas of our brains, as the New York Times recently explained. If you find yourself panicking when, for instance, your hand touches a metal bar on the subway, then in response, deliberately push yourself into a rational thinking mode. Your emotions may tell you that you've contaminated yourself and are likely to get sick immediately; instead, you can calmly tell yourself that you always wash your hands when you get to the office, never touch your face, and there's no specific reason to believe that the bar you touched was contaminated. You can remind yourself in this way that the likelihood that you will get sick from this incident is still quite low.

Similarly, if you experience ambiguous symptoms in your body—such as a backache or a sniffle—you should make a deliberate effort to avoid jumping to conclusions. Human bodies are noisy places, full of unfamiliar, often uncomfortable feelings. If you chronically explore your internal universe for any unusual sensations, you are very likely to wrongly interpret a minor discomfort as something dangerous. In other words, as this article on The Conversation suggests, try to stop checking yourself for subtle signs of illness.

Also, there are several new skills you may be able to develop that can help you feel less anxious. Harvard Medical School's health blog recommends a breathing exercise called square breathing. This may help you reduce the likelihood that by breathing rapidly, or shallowly, you will allow your anxiety to escalate. You might also take up mindfulness meditation with one of the new smartphone apps designed for that purpose, as suggested by Harvard and by The Washington Post

In the end, what works for you to defuse any kind of chronic worry will also work for coronavirus anxiety. Even if you now have to work from home and can't maintain your usual routine, try to develop a new one that includes good nutrition, regular exercise, and enough sleep. The Washington Post reports that it will help to take frequent breaks from worry to read, listen to podcasts, watch movies, or play video games.

Avoid excessive alcohol or junk food consumption. Stay out of crowds, of course, but keep in touch with your friends and family; don't self-isolate. Connect with your friends through text or video-chat to talk about something other than the coronavirus for a change. And, of course, seek out psychotherapy if the anxiety you feel becomes too much for you to tolerate.

As CNBC recommends, staying connected by helping other people may offer a sense of control and purpose that can be lacking in these difficult times. If you're able, reach out to the senior citizens in your family or your community to see if they need anything to stay healthy and safe. Even though we're now being told to keep a safe social distance from each other, it's also essential to remember that everyone you know—everyone on the planet—is in this predicament together and that each of us can do a lot to help us all get through it. 


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