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Coping With Coronavirus Anxiety

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

Often when we feel anxious it’s a reflection of negatively biased thinking (called “cognitive distortions”) instead of reality. One such example is named “catastrophizing.” It involves coming to believe that things are much worse than they really are. For example, if you’ve ever been running late to a meeting and you thought to yourself “I’m going to be fired,” but you weren’t fired, then your thoughts were distorted to think the worst-case scenario was more likely than it actually was.

In the case of feeling anxious about Coronavirus, it is much harder to understand when our worries are proportionate to reality because of the overload of constantly evolving, hard to process information. Rational decisions are ones based on “the potential outcomes, their probabilities, and their values to the decision maker at the time the decision is made” (Hastie & Dawes, 2010). So, in other words, if you belong to an at-risk population (e.g. over age 60, a chronic smoker, or someone with a cardiovascular disease, etc.) then responding to this pandemic with anxiety is the rational thing to do. If you live or work with people who belong to at-risk populations, you should also be anxious, because you probably feel a moral responsibility to not cause undue harm to others.

But what about the rest of us? Should we be anxious about Coronavirus? The answer is still yes, but within reason. If you cannot afford to practice social distancing because your job does not permit working remotely, figure out what you can do to reduce your risks, and worry about that. If you cannot afford to buy N95 face masks, or you can’t wear one because they are sold out everywhere online, again, focus on what is inside your control.

Before you do anything though, stop and educate yourself on Coronavirus... Step 1: Educate Yourself Pick a few reliable news sources (e.g. the CDC), and set a limit for how often you want to allow yourself to check them. For your own sake, also stop checking your stocks daily, and don’t watch movies like Contagion (2011) if you tend to be more of a hypochondriac. Make sure you ask whoever you are accountable to what options are available to you in terms of working remotely, avoiding travel, and improving sanitation practices. Finally, make sure you have a good understanding of your personal risk, and the risk of your loved ones. For example, while children appear to be surprisingly resilient to Coronavirus, grandma isn’t, so you might want to change your Easter plans if you planned on visiting.

Step 2: Communicate (Ideally, you would also try to share your sources, so that others can make similarly well informed decisions.)

My boyfriend and I have agreed to stop going to the gym (admittedly this is not much of a sacrifice on my part…) and to order our groceries on Instacart -- but also to tip as generously as we can afford to, given the heightened personal risk of delivery persons right now -- this way neither of our efforts are nullified by the actions of the other. We have spoken with our parents about what we should do if one of them gets sick (i.e. who will care for them and where). Figure out if your local hospital even has Coronavirus testing kits, bed space, and enough respirators. Step 3: Control What You Can You can learn how to properly wash your hands, and be deliberate about washing them often and correctly. When sinks aren’t available, you can use hand sanitizer. If you can’t find any hand sanitizer for sale, you can look up DIY instructions online. You can start disinfecting your phone and other surfaces that you have frequent contact with (e.g. door knobs, steering wheels, light switches, keyboards, etc.)

If you have the option to work from home, do so. If someone tries to shake your hand, politely decline. If you can afford to take an Uber instead of the subway for awhile, splurge. If you were supposed to go on a trip, or to a concert, postpone. If you can afford to throw in a couple of canned goods on the grocery list, do so for a couple of weeks until you have a 1 month supply of non-perishables for your household. Most importantly, if you feel sick (but not sick enough to require medical intervention) please stay home. Step 4: Accept What You Can't Control At the end of the day, one of the only things in your control is how you respond to the world. You can either hold your breath, or you can take breath. Trust me when I say, the people that learn to take a breath end up being happier and healthier in the long run. So do what you need to stay positive in light of all of this ambient stress. Make the most out of “home arrest” and pick up a new hobby, re-download Duolingo, or finally read that book that’s been sitting on your shelf for a few years. Most of all, if you need extra support through this difficult time, or even just a safe space to make sense of things, have compassion for yourself.

It is a stressful time for just about everyone in the world right now. You aren’t alone in your feelings, whatever they may be.

Be happy, stay healthy.

Smart Talk

Written by Sophie Wright

Originally published on 03/13/2020

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