The last few days have made clear how serious the escalating coronavirus pandemic is for many people in the United States. Schools and workplaces across the country closed, major events were cancelled, and testing delays made it impossible to confirm how many people were infected. The stock market had its biggest decline in decades, Sarah Palin rapped to “Baby Got Back” dressed in a bear suit—it feels like the world is unraveling. There is so much going on, and so much uncertainty, it is all too easy to get trapped watching cable news or scrolling through Twitter all day.
If all this news is making you feel stressed, you’re far from alone. Many people are sharing their worries online; there’s a whole subreddit devoted to coping with these feelings. Experts say overloading on information about events like the coronavirus outbreak can make you particularly anxious, especially if you’re stuck inside with little to do but keep scrolling on Twitter and Facebook. But you can take steps to mitigate the amount of stress you feel, while still keeping you and your family safe. Reducing anxiety won’t only make this difficult time more bearable, it will help keep you physically healthy and your immune system strong.
Why the Coronavirus Is Uniquely Stressful
“All of our attention is being focused on the threatening aspects of the situation,” says Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, where he runs a lab studying emotion and self-control “We’re zoomed in on the potential threat.” Headlines are dominated by places where the pandemic is currently hitting the hardest, like Italy and Washington State. Health authorities are cautioning about the dangers of once mundane activities, like gathering in large groups or shaking hands. As the US rolls out more testing, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases are inevitably going to increase.
The safety measures people are taking may be more immediate and visible, too, whether it’s public places looking less crowded, or long lines outside of stores as people stock up on food. “That probably increased the perception that this is something dangerous,” says Thomas Rodebaugh, a clinical psychologist focused on anxiety disorders and the director of clinical training at Washington University in St. Louis. Even though most precautions in the US are being taken out of an abundance of caution, they can cause you to feel like everyone is panicking. “We are motivated to pay attention to what other people are doing,” he says.
To make matters worse, you don’t have much control over the situation, which often makes people anxious, says Anu Asnaani, a clinical psychologist at the University of Utah specializing in fear-based disorders. No one knows when the pandemic will be over or when things will be back to normal, which can be maddening. “Control and certainty are at the core, from an evolutionary standpoint, of what has kept our species alive,” she says. “When we are uncertain, we take precautions to make sure we aren’t killed or we don’t die.”
It can feel like everyone is trying to scare you, which, in some ways, they are. The intention is to motivate people to take actions that will keep them safe, but a side effect is that you may feel an overwhelming amount of anxiety that ceases to be helpful.
Tips to Reduce Your Anxiety
First, if you already know you struggle with overcoming anxiety, this is a great time to reach out to a mental health professional, even if you know you can’t meet with them in person. “A lot of therapists are doing telehealth and phone sessions,” says Asnaani. If you’ve seen a therapist or counselor before, even if it was a while ago, she adds, “Consider reaching back out to an old therapist and proactively keeping up with your mental healthcare.”