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March 11, 2020

Is your coronavirus anxiety spinning out of control? Here's how to handle it.

Daily Briefing

    As cases of the new coronavirus increase in the United States, a relentless news cycle and false information are spiking fears, leading people to take extreme measures to regain a sense of control over their health. Health experts explain how to keep yourself calm. 

    Our analysis: The 'recurring themes' of disease outbreaks

    About the coronavirus epidemic

    Reports of the new coronavirus, which causes a disease known as COVID-19, first surfaced in early December 2019 in Wuhan, China. As of Wednesday morning, officials reported more than 121,800 cases of COVID-19 globally. Officials said as of Wednesday morning there had been at least 4,381 deaths linked to the new coronavirus, and all but 1,219 occurred in mainland China.

    In China, the number of newly reported cases of COVID-19 has slowed. But the number of newly reported cases outside of China has more than tripled over the past week and a half. In the United States, state and federal officials as of Wednesday morning reported 1,015 confirmed or presumed positive cases of COVID-19, up from 231 on Friday. So far, 31 U.S. deaths have been linked to the new coronavirus.

    Growing coronavirus cases spike fear

    As the number of COVID-19 cases grow, the global economy has tanked, stores have been ransacked, and people are hoarding medical supplies.

    Given the situation, it's "understandable that people would be frightened," according to Quartz. COVID-19 is spreading, there is no treatment or vaccine, and its true mortality rate is still unclear.

    However, while older people and those with certain existing medical conditions have a reason to be concerned, the anxiety spreading among the general population is "disproportionate to the risk posed by COVID-19 as we understand it today," according to Quartz.

    Health experts have noted that the vast majority of people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 will develop mild symptoms that won't require hospitalization and others will be asymptomatic.

    Why are people so afraid of COVID-19?

    According to psychologist David DeSteno, the reason people are so afraid of the new coronavirus, despite the limited risk, is a "mix of miscalibrated emotion and limited knowledge" about the virus.

    The "non-stop media cycle" surrounding the virus isn't helping to quell people's fears, according to Quartz, especially given that people are prone to "availability bias," meaning we give more weight to the information we can immediately recall.

    "As news about the virus's toll in China stokes our fears, it makes us not only more worried than we need [to] be about contracting it, but also more susceptible to embracing fake claims and potentially problematic, hostile or fearful attitudes toward those around us—claims and attitudes that in turn reinforce our fear and amp up the cycle," DeSteno explained.

    A general lack of knowledge surrounding the disease impacts our perception of risk, as well. People are likely struggling to assess the risk of COVID-19 because even researchers are still learning about the virus. In response, people will sometimes act erratically in response to a "perceived lack of control," according to Dorothy Frizelle, a consultant clinical health psychologist in the United Kingdom.  

    How to manage fears surrounding COVID-19

    Metin Basoglu, a professor of psychiatry and founder of the Istanbul Center for Behavior Research & Therapy, has researched how people cope behaviorally with traumatic events such as earthquakes. A key lesson, he says, is that you need to accept that some risks are out of your control. "You cannot control every single risk that comes your way in life, and lead a meaningful, reasonable, and productive life at the same time," he told Quartz.

    To be sure, it's important to take basic risk-mitigation steps, including following public health guidance around handwashing and self-isolating where appropriate. But people who are prone to anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder might go overboard with what Basoglu calls "extensive, unrealistic avoidance."

    Some people, for instance, might wash their hands to excess, which can actually be counterproductive. As bioethicist Kelly Hills told Vox, "If you are washing your hands so much that they are raw or chafed, you are washing your hands too much"—and potentially increasing your risk of infection.

    It's also important for people who are prone to anxiety to manage their news consumption. It may be tempting to stay glued to the TV or the internet around the clock for the latest developments, but that can make anxiety worse. "Too much media exposure, we know, can heighten one's anxiety," said Alison Holman, associate professor in the school of nursing at the University of California, Irvine and expert in health psychology.

    A better approach, according to Hills, is to read coronavirus news once per day from a credible source. "If you don't need to stay on top of this for your job or your academic work, don't," Hills said.

    Finally, as anxiety and even panic around COVID-19 continues to spread, it's important to lean on trusted social support networks. “I would recommend that people who tend to be more anxious connect in a safe way with people in their lives who they trust; who can help them calm down; and … who they can turn to for support," Holman said (Timsit, Quartz, 3/9; Kucharski, The Guardian, 2/8; DeSteno, New York Times, 2/11; Alptraum, Vox, 3/10; New York Times, 3/11; Smith et al., New York Times, 3/11).

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