Fear

Media, Fear, and the Coronavirus Outbreak

The relentless barrage of coronavirus news may raise your anxiety level.

Posted Mar 03, 2020

Savanevich Viktar/Shutterstock
Source: Savanevich Viktar/Shutterstock

The coronavirus (COVID-19) is a respiratory disease caused by a novel virus first detected in Wuhan, China on December 31, 2019.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the new virus, named SARS-CoV-2, is related to a large family of viruses that caused an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012.1 

The most prominent symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, and shortness of breath, which may appear two to 14 days after exposure.2 The majority of people experience mild symptoms similar to a cold or flu, although it has caused death in medically compromised individuals. The CDC concludes that COVID-19 poses no immediate health risk for most individuals.

Because the virus is fairly weak, tried and true personal hygiene practices can reduce the spread of the disease. The CDC recommends the following3:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you’re sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

So far, the news on the coronavirus sounds reassuring. Unfortunately, there’s another side to this story that’s more disconcerting. The outbreak has been spreading globally, verging on a bonafide pandemic. There is no vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 and while the fatality rate is low, it’s substantially higher than the common flu. Global stock markets have seen their steepest declines since 2008 based on speculation that the outbreak could have a significant negative impact on the global economy. The health care systems of most countries do not have adequate resources for detecting the virus or treating a surge of severely affected patients should the virus spread through the community. 

Clearly, one does not have to look far to find threatening information about COVID-19. How we react to this mixed health information depends on our preconceived beliefs about disease and our susceptibility to its spread.

Fear of Contamination

Fear influences how we react to media coverage of health hazards. Fear of disease and contamination is particularly relevant when it comes to epidemics like the coronavirus. The most severe levels of contamination fear are found in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Approximately 50% of people with OCD have a fear of contamination from dirt or disease that causes them to wash and clean compulsively.4 In some cases the fear focuses on contracting a disease from others; in other cases, it’s a fear the individual will infect other people. In extreme forms of contamination fear, a person may be concerned about coming into contact with droplets of bodily fluid from others or of leaving traces of their own fluid in public places that would cause illness in others. When the fear is this intense, any exposure to public places can be threatening, so the person avoids or washes excessively.

Like most phobias, fear of contamination occurs on a continuum. At the upper end are those with OCD, but at the lower end, we find individuals with little concern about contamination. We can even speculate that the absence of contamination fear might cause reckless exposure to health hazards, thereby elevating the risk of disease exposure for themselves or others. 

So a certain amount of healthy respect for disease and contamination is adaptive. But at a certain point, somewhere in the moderate to high range of fear, concern about disease and contamination generates excessive personal distress and interference in daily functioning. It’s for these people that the barrage of threatening media coverage about the coronavirus outbreak may have the most negative impact.

Health News and Fear of Contamination

Our information technology society has left most people with a severe case of information overload.  The deluge of real-time information coming at us demands that we engage in a continuous process of selective attention and filtering. Health is important to most people so we’re likely to pay attention to information about disease and healthy living. 

But media coverage of health issues is biased. The news outlets devote more time to emerging health hazards, like the COVID-19 outbreak, than common health threats.5 Anxious or fearful individuals tend to pay more attention to threat-related information, which then drives up their anxiety and distress. With the media devoting so much time to the coronavirus outbreak, there’s plenty of opportunity for those with elevated contamination fear to focus on the threatening aspects of the outbreak. This will cause a spike in fear and anxiety about the disease. In response, non-infected individuals with OCD-like contamination fear might restore to extraordinary measures to deal with their fear, like self-quarantine or washing with toxic disinfectants. Once their coronavirus fear is activated, the more reassuring information about the outbreak gets filtered out.

How to Handle the News

If you’ve been disturbed by the coronavirus news because of a high fear of disease and contamination, there are several steps you can take to lower your fear and anxiety.

  • Be guided by medical advice and not your feelings: Adopt the health hygiene practices recommended by the CDC. Resist the temptation to go beyond these recommendations in order to feel less anxious or afraid.
  • Limit your exposure to coronavirus news: Given your bias for threat, it’s best to restrict time spent searching the latest news on the coronavirus. You’ll want to be well-informed from health advisories but make sure your sources are credible.
  • Avoid compulsive washing:  Follow the CDC guidelines for washing your hands. If you find yourself washing until you feel better, this may be a sign you’ve slipped into OCD territory.
  • Normalize your life: Don’t let fear rule your daily living. As the coronavirus news becomes more urgent, be guided by reason, responsibility, and keep your fears in check.

References

1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Summary. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/summary.html  on March 2, 2020.

2. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Symptoms.  Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/symptoms.html on March 2, 2020.

3. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Prevention & Treatment.  Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/prevention-treatment.html on March 2, 2020.

4. Clark, D. A. (2020). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for OCD and its subtypes. New York: Guilford Press.

5. Bomlitz, L. J., & Brezis, M. (2008). Misrepresentation of health risks by mass media. Journal of Public Health, 30(2), 202-204.