Everyone is talking about coronavirus (COVID-19) right now, and for good reason. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a pandemic, and while 80% of cases are mild and individuals under 50 have a low mortality rate (0.2%), the mortality rate begins to rise for individuals over 50 and is very significant for those over 80.
“Concerns about coronavirus are absolutely warranted, and it’s essential that we pay attention and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) recommendations to slow the progression of COVID-19,” says Aaron Weiner, Ph.D., Director of Addiction Services at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.
“However, it’s also critical that we are measured in our concern and make intentional effort to not to let our anxiety get the better of us,” Weiner says.
Excessive anxiety can have a negative impact on all areas of our life: our relationships, our parenting, the quality of our life, and even our immune system. Given the current circumstances, having good coping mechanisms in place is essential to our health and well-being.
Easier said than done, however, particularly when anxiety itself can be psychologically contagious, and society-at-large is at such a heightened level of concern. In order to help keep your emotional center stable, and potentially help anchor others who are struggling with their own anxiety, please consider the following suggestions from Dr. Weiner:
- Limit the amount of time you spend reading about coronavirus news. It’s very easy to look at online headlines repeatedly, hitting refresh to see if the case count of infected individuals has risen in the last day, or last hour. Sometimes we seek out information to try to give ourselves a sense of control, using this knowledge as a proxy for actual control in our lives. While it is important to stay abreast of current recommendations, remember that every time you expose yourself to disturbing news, you are stoking the fires of your own anxiety. “Choose one time per day to read about coronavirus news, and once you are updated, wait until tomorrow to check again,” says Dr. Weiner. “If you find that coronavirus news is all over your social media, also consider reducing your exposure there, as well.”
- Focus on what you can control to keep you and your family healthy, and let go of what you can’t. While ultimately there is no way to fully control whether you contract the virus, you can significantly reduce the risk by following recommended guidelines. If you follow recommendations from our healthcare institutions, you can rest easy knowing that you’ve done your part to keep yourself and your family safe. Again, if you have not already, please review recommendations from the CDC and IDPH.
- Don’t engage in “safety behaviors” that increase your anxiety without making you any safer. In anxiety treatment, a “safety behavior” is something that you do that makes you feel safe, but actually 1) doesn’t make you any safer, and 2) affirms your assumption that you need to be anxious in the first place. An example of this is someone who does not ride on elevators because they are worried that it will break and fall: they feel that the avoidance keeps them safe, even though elevators are extremely safe in the first place. By avoiding the elevator, they don’t give themselves a chance to learn that elevators are safe, and their fear not only persists, but is reinforced.
- For coronavirus, this means taking recommended precautions, but not going overboard. An example of a safety behavior in this circumstance is mask-hoarding or preventative mask-wearing — the CDC has been very clear that masks are most useful right now for containing germs if you’re sick, but not for keeping germs out when you’re in public. Worse yet, people tend to touch their face more when wearing a mask, which is associated with increased risk of contracting the virus.
- Avoid catastrophizing: remember that, in all likelihood, you are going to be OK. It’s easy to assume the worst, but this only makes our anxiety worse. “Remember: most people who contract COVID-19 will be just fine. That includes you and your family,” says Dr. Weiner. “If you operate under the assumption that you and your loved ones will be OK, your anxiety will be significantly lower than if you ruminate on possible catastrophic outcomes.”
- Engage in mindfulness meditation to reduce your reactivity to anxiety. “We can’t always control how many anxiety-provoking stimuli we’re exposed to in our life, but we can decide how we react to them,” Dr. Weiner says. “One of the best methods for coping with anxiety is mindfulness meditation — I would recommend at least 10 minutes per day, if you’re able.” If you’re not familiar with mindfulness meditation, try getting started with a smartphone app that uses research-supported techniques and provides you with training. “I’m partial to Headspace and 10% Happier, both of which are available on iOS and Android and have free introductory courses but use another if you feel it is a better fit,” Dr. Weiner says.
- Get support and talk about your feelings. When we’re having strong feelings about just about anything, the worst thing we can do is bottle them up inside — this causes them to grow larger, not fade away. “Make sure you open up to close friends and family about your feelings and, if necessary, don’t hesitate to work with a therapist,” Dr. Weiner says. “Therapists have years of specialized training to help you to cope during stressful times, and the benefits of therapy are very different than what you experience from friends and family.” Having both strong personal relationships, and a therapist, in your corner can be incredibly helpful and empowering.
During this time of heightened stress, Dr. Weiner says it’s essential to take care of ourselves and manage our anxiety. Although it may not be possible to choose exactly how the coronavirus impacts our community, we can choose how we respond to it emotionally by taking steps to care for our emotional health, and striving to keep our emotional center during this challenging time.
If you or a member of your family would benefit from working with a therapist, please visit www.eehealth.org/services/behavioral-health or call Linden Oaks Behavioral Health at 630-305-5027 to find the location nearest you.
Edward-Elmhurst Health is closely monitoring information from the CDC and working closely with the IDPH and DuPage County Health Department to keep our staff, physicians, patients and community safe during the COVID-19 outbreak. Learn more at www.eehealth.org/coronavirus.