Coping with Coronavirus Anxiety

by Norman Brier, Ph.D.

It is normal to be anxious. Given the politics and mixed messages that infuse the discussions about the Coronavirus, most of us will experience a profound sense of uncertainty. We are unable to predict what will happen with many every day matters so as a consequence, it is likely that we will feel very anxious. To manage our anxiety as best we can, it is helpful to:

1. Focus on the facts.

We need to rely only on information provided by reliable information sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2. Keep things in proportion. We need to pay attention to:

  • What the Coronavirus symptoms actually are. Based on the 55,924 cases found in China, the two most common symptoms of the virus are fever (present in about 90% of cases) and a dry cough (present in about 67% of cases). The next most common symptom is fatigue (present in about 40% of cases). Other symptoms include sputum or thick mucus production (present in about 33% of cases) and shortness of breath (present in about 19%of cases)*. In terms of progression, symptoms typically start with fever, followed by a dry cough, and then for some but not all people, shortness of breath.

    To allay our anxiety it is particularly important to note what the symptoms of Coronavirus are not, for example, they are not a runny nose or cough triggered by post nasal drip.

  • Our own and our loved ones actual risk of getting ill based on the presence of the risk factors that have been identified.  Currently these include following underlying health conditions: heart disease, lung disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and diabetes, as well as being age 60 or older. Older age is most likely a risk factor because of the increased likelihood with advancing age people are more likely to have one of the aforementioned health conditions.

  • If we are engaging in \”catastrophizing\” – filling in the unknown with the worst outcome that we can imagine, or allowing ourselves to become preoccupied with the dangers posed by the virus by listening to news reports about its spread throughout the day.

3. Focus on whatever comforting information is known

It is important that we need only be informed about the facts pertaining to the virus but also informed about facts that might provide us with some degree of reassurance or a sense of safety. We might consider, for example, such things as: the mortality rate for people without a preexisting condition is less than 1%; our not possessing any of the risk factors for the virus; the mild nature of the illness for the majority of people (i.e. 81%) who do get infected. The declining rate of the virus in countries where the virus was first seen indicates that a sense of normalcy will return in the not so distance future.

4. Consider applying the wisdom of the serenity prayer

At present, we have only a limited amount of control in regard to influencing the virus. As a consequence, it may be helpful to follow the advice contained in the serenity prayer – to first distinguish what we can control from what we cannot, and then to do our best to control what we can. This includes taking established precautions which are: washing our hands frequently; covering a cough; distancing ourselves from others, especially others  who cough; and avoiding touching our eyes, nose, and mouth*.

5. Attempt to be our aspired self

Remembering that while we have only limited control over external events, we still do have the ability to control \”internal events,\” which includes our attitudes, feelings, and actions. Therefore we can think about the person we would most wish to be at this challenging time either by considering times in the past when we were proud of how we coped with a challenge, or how others who we admire have acted when in they were in a crisis. For example, we might imagine that we will be a person who carefully and objectively considers the facts, is kind and focuses not only his or her own welfare but also the welfare of others, and is flexible and adaptive, learning from others and able to use a range of techniques to react to cope.

We can practice this strategy by visualizing our enacting these aspirations in recent stressful situations and when the next challenging occasion arises, see how well we are to keep to our plan. If we can we are likely to feel more in control and proud that we are able to influence the way we manage our stress.

6.  Create balance and ways of relaxing

To reduce our anxiety, it is also important that we regularly divert our attention away from our fears (e.g. Netflix, video games) and that we identify activities that can help us relax (e.g. hobbies, meditation, prayer.)

7. Maintain our connection to others

Finally, since social distancing to mitigate the risk of contracting the virus is extremely important at the present time, we may feel isolated and lonely. To lessen this possibility we need to talk: to friends and family regularly; tell them how we are feeling and coping; ask how they are feeling and coping, and importantly, talk about issues unrelated to the virus as well.

All facts via World Health Organization.

Norman Brier (PhD) was a Professor of Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He has supervised hundreds of healthcare professionals and authored a number of original articles and books. He maintains a private practice in Bedford NY.

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