Note: I published this post on March 1st, 2020, more than a week before we in the Bay Area began sheltering in place. While many things about the situation have changed and intensified, the core message of this post still stands: we have to balance caution with finding ways to live meaningfully. So, to whoever reads this, please keep the date of publication in mind. All statistics have been left as they were in the original posting.
Coronavirus anxiety – anxiety in response to coronavirus (COVID-19); at its extreme, a form of health anxiety with coronavirus as its content
There’s no denying that coronavirus is scary. When something so beyond our control appears in our life, with possibly fatal consequences, fear is an appropriate response.
That being said, some people are liable to suffer exaggerated fear in response to coronavirus. This is fear that overrides a person’s ability to reason, and terrorizes the person with worst-case scenario after worst-case scenario. It may cause anxiety symptoms that disrupt a person’s normal way of life, such as lack of sleep and distraction at work. This is fear that grips the steering wheel and doesn’t let go.
To manage your anxiety about coronavirus, start with the following: get informed, limit your consumption to media (especially media that plays to your fear), commit to taking a reasonable amount of safety precautions, and then go on living your life in the way you see fit.
Let me go into each of these more.
When you’re uninformed as to the information and risks of coronavirus, your anxious mind has free rein to create whatever disastrous scenario it can come up with. But when you inform yourself, the accurate information is more likely to put the brakes on runaway fear.
So, you may want to learn:
- How coronavirus spreads
- What you can do to keep from getting coronavirus
- Symptoms of coronavirus
- The risks associated with getting coronavirus
You can access this information provided by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) here. Other reputable sources include the World Health Organization (WHO) and The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The juggling act here is how to stay informed without falling prey to media sources that amplify your anxiety beyond the reality of the situation.
Choose Your Media Wisely
Visual and print media can have a variety of effects on us. They can inform and inspire us, or they can play to our worst fears and then exaggerate them.
As you go forward, ask yourself why you’re consuming this or that media? Is it providing necessary information for making informed decisions, or is it stoking the flames of fear that already have you on the run?
For example, a few nights ago I thought about watching Contagion, a 2011 film about a viral outbreak similar to coronavirus. Before mindlessly ordering it on Amazon, I turned inwards and asked myself how I expected to feel afterwards. Would I feel calmer, more prepared to go forward with my life? Or would I feel more nervous, my anxious fantasies alive and well-fed? I decided that the second scenario was more likely, so I chose another course of action.
Action steps: Decide for yourself which media you’ll consume and which media you’ll stay away from. Also, decide how long you’ll allow yourself to consume media related to coronavirus each day. For example, you may decide that 15-minutes a day is your limit, given where you are in life.
Take Reasonable Precautions
The Nature of Anxiety: Separate from the Content
Chances are, if you’re highly anxious about coronavirus, this is not your first time being highly anxious. You likely have a pattern of heightened anxiety. And when it comes to heightened anxiety, it doesn’t matter what the content is – coronavirus, SARS, the economy, etc. – your anxiety searches for something to attach itself to. It looks for the thing in the real world where it can say, “See! You SHOULD be anxious!”
Anxiety is always trying to prove why it’s reasonable and why you should take it seriously. This is the nature of anxiety. It’s just what it does.
Your job is to balance this anxiety with all of the other priorities of your life. You can accept your anxiety around coronavirus, let it motivate you to take reasonable precautions, AND keep moving forward with your life.
Each of us has to find this balance between guarding against risk while still living our lives fully.
The Risk of Coronavirus
Part of being informed is knowing the actual risk associated with contracting coronavirus. This especially matters for those of us with heightened anxiety, because risk is something that we often have a tough time dealing with.
It is being reported that coronavirus has a fatality rate of anywhere from 0.4-2.3%.1“This uncertainty in the CFR may be reflected by the important difference between the CFR in Hubei (2.9%) compared with outside Hubei (0.4%). Nevertheless, all CFRs still need to be interpreted with caution and more research is required.” https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2762130?guestAccessKey=bdcca6fa-a48c-4028-8406-7f3d04a3e932&utm_source=For_The_Media&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=ftm_links&utm_content=tfl&utm_term=022420 For example, a recent paper by JAMA (“the largest patient-based study on the novel coronavirus” to date2http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/02/study-72000-covid-19-patients-finds-23-death-rate) reported a fatality rate of 2.3% in its patient group, with the greatest risk for aging populations. “No deaths occurred in the group aged 9 years and younger, but cases in those aged 70 to 79 years had an 8.0% CFR [fatality rate] and cases in those aged 80 years and older had a 14.8% CFR [fatality rate].”3https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2762130?guestAccessKey=bdcca6fa-a48c-4028-8406-7f3d04a3e932&utm_source=For_The_Media&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=ftm_links&utm_content=tfl&utm_term=022420
The flu has a fatality rate of roughly 0.1%. Coronavirus’s fatality rate of approximately 1-2% means that it is about 10-20 times as fatal as the common flu, but nowhere near as deadly as SARS or MERS.
Of course, these numbers mean nothing to the individuals who have died of coronavirus. This is where anxiety will try to trip a lot of us up, by saying, “Who cares if the fatality rate is only 1%? It could still happen to me – I could be the 1% that dies!”
Which is true. Any of us could contract coronavirus and die. But this is the case with thousands of other risks we take daily as well. We take those risks again and again because we value living lives of interaction and meaning.
Coronavirus is cause to be careful, but it is not a reason to stop living your life.
What We Can Learn from Coronavirus
Coronavirus is a reminder of our vulnerability in the world. It’s scary to be vulnerable, because when you’re vulnerable you can be changed (or killed) by something outside of your control. Even though you can choose how to respond to what happens to you, you don’t always have the final say in how it goes.
Life is made up of a series of risks we can either choose to take or back away from. Those of us with heightened anxiety are prone to back away from risk, because we find it difficult to face uncertainty without imagining worst-case scenarios that then overtake us. Our courage dwindles, and we retreat into a half-life of imagined safety. It’s just as Anaïs Nin said: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
For those of us with heightened anxiety, finding courage in the face of risk is a growth-edge. It’s part of our work as deep-feelers in life.
Coronavirus is another opportunity to learn to face risk (because coronavirus does involve risk), to face risk intelligently and reasonably, in the service of living a full and meaningful life.4I say this as someone with skin in the game. I have asthma, a chronic respiratory illness. According to the recent JAMA paper, the case fatality rate was “6.3% for chronic respiratory disease”. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2762130?guestAccessKey=bdcca6fa-a48c-4028-8406-7f3d04a3e932&utm_source=For_The_Media&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=ftm_links&utm_content=tfl&utm_term=022420
Conclusion – Managing Anxiety about Coronavirus
It’s normal to be anxious about the coronavirus. Anxiety can motivate intelligent action, such as taking preventive measures to keep safe.
To keep your anxiety about coronavirus from getting out of control, you can make yourself adequately informed, limit your consumption of media, take reasonable precautions, and then go forward with your life.
If you find it difficult to get a grip on your anxiety about coronavirus, consider finding a therapist who can help you. Either choose a therapist you know or trust, or find a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety and specifically health anxiety.
Note: I am a Marriage and Family Therapist, not an epidemiologist or other disease specialist. I’m speaking to the role of anxiety in how people respond to health concerns. I am NOT providing medical advice. Everyone’s situation is different, and everyone needs to make an informed decision in the context of their own lives, after gathering enough information and consulting with medical professionals. If you are worried about your health, talk to a doctor or other medical professional immediately.