On Feb. 25, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave Americans some unsettling advice: prepare for coronavirus to disrupt your life. In light of the accelerated global spread of COVID-19, CDC officials called a U.S. domestic outbreak increasingly likely, and urged Americans to ready themselves for possibilities like school closures, remote working and self-quarantine.
Those comments were a stark departure from the CDC’s earlier assurances that a worldwide COVID-19 outbreak, while serious, posed relatively little threat to the U.S., due to minimal domestic person-to-person transmission and precautionary measures like travel restrictions. (On Feb. 26, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar reiterated that most Americans are not at high risk of disease.) With many people already on edge about the virus, the CDC’s escalated advice, however prudent, likely heightened nervousness—as did Feb. 26 reports of what could be the first community spread of the virus in the U.S.
Health can be a uniquely anxiety-provoking arena, says Catherine Belling, an associate professor of medical education at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine who wrote a 2012 book on hypochondria (now medically known as illness anxiety disorder). “Our bodies are so incredibly, intimately close to us, but…we’re dependent on doctors to tell us what’s going on inside ourselves,” she says. “The stakes are really high, but you also don’t have control over this very high stakes part of yourself.”
Worry about COVID-19 doesn’t exactly fit the bill for illness anxiety disorder, Belling says. People with traditionally hypochondriac tendencies usually have generalized anxiety about illnesses and symptoms, rather than about one particular disease. The condition is also characterized by excessive or irrational worry, and Belling says some concern about coronavirus is warranted. “It’s completely rational to be anxious, because we’re not certain [of how it will play out],” she says.
Still, there’s a difference between feeling unease about a scary and uncertain subject, and being anxious to the point that worry hinders your sleep and daily life, says psychiatrist Dr. John Oldham, the chief of staff at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, TX. If your worry falls into the latter category, you may want to speak with a mental health professional, Oldham says.
Ideally, Oldham says, people would prevent excessive stress before it reaches that point. To do so, he recommends tried-and-true approaches like getting enough sleep, exercising, not drinking too much and looking for social connection. “Preventive measures seem like what we should be doing anyway,” Oldham says, “except we don’t do them most of the time.”
With a developing news story like the coronavirus outbreak, finding the right amount of information is also key, Oldham says. Watching the news 24/7 may only pump up stress, Oldham says. “Don’t oversaturate yourself or overload yourself. Don’t limit your exposure only to the breaking news [and] sensationalistic news outlets,” he says. “Go to updates from established, authoritative sources,” like the World Health Organization’s website. That can soothe anxiety by helping you feel informed, Oldham says, without having to navigate the erraticism of the daily news cycle. These more measured sources also provide concrete directions for disease prevention, like washing your hands frequently and keeping your distance from people who are actively sick. Taking specific action can further help you feel less powerless.
If you do get sick with a respiratory illness, remember there’s a far greater chance it’s the seasonal flu or a common cold than COVID-19, says Dr. George Zgourides, a Texas-based family physician and clinical psychologist, and author of the book Stop Worrying About Your Health. Both of those illnesses result in symptoms similar to COVID-19 (cough, fever and shortness of breath), and both are currently circulating in far greater numbers in the U.S. An estimated 29 million people in the U.S. have gotten the flu this season, compared to 60 confirmed cases of COVID-19. “Look at probability versus possibility,” Zgourides says. “We have to put this in context.”
Still, Belling says there’s no harm in thinking about what you would do in case of a situation like quarantine—and, indeed, the CDC has suggested planning for changes in child care, work and finances in the event of more drastic containment measures. Thinking practically about these possibilities means you’ll be prepared if they do happen, and “it’s reassuring to the extent that you’ve done what you can do,” Belling says. “That diminishes anxiety as well.” (Again, though, if you find yourself ruminating about emergency preparedness, it can’t hurt to talk with somebody. Zgourides also recommends a simple technique: if you find yourself having obsessive thoughts, say “stop” out loud, or snap a rubber band on your wrist to pull yourself out of it.)
Finally, Belling says it can be useful to remind yourself that worrying won’t change anything. “There’s no correlation between how worried you are and how at risk you are,” she says.
In other words: tackle the things in your control, like practicing good anti-disease hygiene and making a preparedness plan, but try not to panic about things that aren’t.
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