Your risk of catching the new coronavirus is probably low if you haven’t recently been to Wuhan, China (where the virus originated) or been in contact with people who were there recently. But you might still be anxious about the spread of the virus.
That’s perfectly normal, says Jane Timmons-Mitchell, associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine — and there are some easy ways to cope with those anxious feelings. “There’s a lot of good stuff we can do to help ourselves,” Timmons-Mitchell says. “It’s not big deal stuff, it’s stuff you can do on your own in your home.”
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
I’m in New York, and while there have been a few suspected cases in the state, I know the risk of me getting this disease is really low. Why am I still feeling anxious about this virus?
It’s normal to feel anxious when something is well publicized and is something new and potentially dangerous. Something big is going on, but I think the reaction is largely to all the coverage. We focus on what’s new, as opposed to what’s a part of how things usually are. Thousands and thousands of people die from the flu every year, but we’re thinking about the new thing.
It’s sometimes harder for me control my anxiety when it’s about illnesses than it is when I’m worried about other things. Why is that?
There are many ways anxiety can manifest. But if we’re thinking about a physical illness, if you know what the symptoms are, you could focus on or be hyperaware of anything in your body that could be those symptoms — if you have a bit of a tickle, or feel like you maybe have a low-grade fever. Those are all things that could happen as manifestations of feeling anxious and looking for it. The body is strange in that way. Anxiety can cause stress, which can cause physical reactions.
What can I do to feel less anxious?
One of the things is to try and keep it in perspective. In that sense, you could think about all the things you do every day that incur some risk. You live in a place that could be dangerous in a number of ways — like it could catch on fire. You go outside of that place, and you could be struck by lighting. But we don’t think about those things. We have decided those are acceptable risks and they occur at such a low rate that the benefit is worth it. You can apply the usual coping strategy, which is to weigh the acceptable risk.
Instead of reading every article and going to every website, staying away from the web is probably a good idea if you’re concerned. You can get a lot of bad information and anecdotal reports that have nothing to do with what’s likely happening to you or anyone else. Pursue constructive activities instead of hyper-focusing on the thing that you’re worried about.
Other things that can help are following the usual structure of your day. Include exercise as much as you can. When you’re exercising, you have a physiological response that combats anxiety. Social connection also helps. Do things with people you know that are not centered around specific symptoms — doing something you usually do, that you enjoy, is a really good way to not focus on what you’re anxious about.
Avoiding the news is something that’s pretty hard for me as a health journalist, but are there ways for other people to stay informed without getting overwhelmed and making their anxiety worse?
Pick sources of news that you trust and are well-vetted. Something everyone can do is go to the CDC website, and if there’s something you need to be aware of, they will have a banner to let you know. If you’re extremely anxious but still want to check in, you could try checking that website only once a day. Distance yourself if you can.