The Psychological Implications Of Coronavirus

So I have to be honest – last night I experienced my first bout of anxiety due to this virus.  When things first came out, I was completely dismissive about the whole thing, assuming the media was just trying to get ratings on their coverages and adding a lot of hype to create fear.

But last night, my mind started racing and began to default to all of the possibilities of what could go wrong.  Personally, I’m not afraid of dying from a virus.  But my fears were centralized on my grandchildren and how the state of the world might affect their lives and their future.  

So what does a therapist do when they experience anxiety???

Well, first of all, anxiety thrives on uncertainty.  And, as the coronavirus spreads, our unanswered questions can make us feel vulnerable or fearful. “Will it come to my community” or “Am I at risk?’

If you chat with five different friends, you’ll see a range of responses—some are already ordering face masks and stocking up on water, others thinking maybe they won’t got to Italy this summer, and still others haven’t heard anything about the virus.

Despite the information we do hear, part of the trouble is humans are not great at assessing risk. According to Paul Slovic, Ph.D., who researches risk and decision making at the University of Oregon, how risk is conveyed determines how it’s interpreted. And, people use their emotions, not logical analysis to evaluate risks.

Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion that prompts people to jump to the worst possible conclusion after a minor setback. When a situation is upsetting, but not necessarily catastrophic, they still feel like they are in the midst of a crisis.

For example, if someone prone to catastrophizing makes a mistake at work, they might believe they will be fired. And that if they get fired, they’ll lose their house. And if they lose their house, what will happen to their children? And on and on. This pattern of thinking can be destructive because unnecessary and persistent worry can lead to heightened anxiety and depression.

Catastrophizing likely arose because the brain evolved to be on high alert for potential threats. Stress and anxiety may have helped prehistoric humans anticipate danger and survive in unpredictable environments. But today, a tendency to overreact to problems that are not matters of life and death can hurt more than help.

“Catastrophizing is an example of an unhealthy thinking pattern which may make contamination seem more likely than it actually is,” says Dr. Julie Kolzet, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in New York City.

To feel less anxious, Dr. Kolzet suggests getting news from reliable sources and thinking about the facts. “Ask yourself, what’s the evidence for this and the evidence against it.” Another tactic is to ask yourself what the cost is of believing the worst-case scenario.

And here’s a catch-22: The more you stress, the more vulnerable you can become to viruses, because stress can dampen your immune response.  GREAT, right?

That does seem to be the cycle of stress and anxiety.  This is why it is imperative to learn and practice what you need in order to find a state of calm personally for yourself.  There are hundreds of methods to use, but you’ll have to find what works best for you.  Sometimes going to a therapist can help you discover what techniques are right for you and work to calm your autonomic nervous system.   

ON A POSITIVE NOTE:  It’s good to remember, some anxiety is normal.  It keeps us diligent, aware and responsible.  

While some anxiety helps us cope, extreme anxiety can become coronavirus panic. When we are in a panic state, we suffer, we stress out our children, we are more likely to make mistakes and engage in irrational decisions and behavior.

So here are some practical techniques you can implement to keep yourself as calm as possible during these uncertain times:

1. Acknowledge your anxiety, and don’t try to deflect it.

It’s an age-old reality, but the more you think about not doing something, the more likely you are to actually do it. Joseph McNamara, Ph.D., the co-director of the University of Florida’s Center for OCD, Anxiety and Related Disorders, says trying to deny any anxious feelings isn’t going to help you manage your stress later on. “Anxiety helps us to prepare and be safe. If we didn’t have any anxiety before a test, we wouldn’t study,” he says, alongside Megan Barthle-Herrera, Ph.D., an assistant professor in UF’s department of psychiatry.

Jeffrey Cohen, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, says being aware of your anxiety may also help you better manage it in future instances. “Practice tolerating uncertainty. The paradox is that the more we are unwilling to accept anxiety, the more our anxiety increases, so practice allowing anxiety to be present and remind yourself it is ok to feel anxious.”

2. Plan ahead to feel more in control

Those of us prone to anxiety, like to be in control. So, if you take basic steps to prepare for the possibility of an outbreak in your community, you may feel a sense of relief. For instance, ask your employer about a work-from-home option. Be prepared for disruptions such as school closings. Have contingency plans for these disruptions. In addition, identify trusted sources of information you can turn to in the event of an outbreak.

It’s very important to say, well, no matter what happens, I’ve done the best that I can to be prepared.  

3. Unplug. Learn to be in the moment

It’s important to be in the know. But you don’t need to obsess over the news. “There’s a point where, information gathering could become problematic,” says Stewart Shankman, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies anxiety. He says it could have the unintended effect of driving up your fear.

If you’re taking basic steps to protect yourself and stay informed, that’s enough. “There’s no way to reduce your risk to zero,” Shankman says. You could spend all day and night reading headlines, news alerts or tweets but this “does not change your risk of getting coronavirus.”

Once you unplug from the news for a bit, why not try a mindfulness app such as Headspace or Simply Being to help you let go of anticipatory anxiety. “We know from numerous studies that mindfulness is very effective at reducing stress and anxiety,” Shankman says.

4. Prioritize good sleep

While there’s still a lot to learn about the new coronavirus, prior research has shown that well-rested people are better at fending off viruses.

For instance, when researchers sprayed a live common cold virus into the noses of a bunch of healthy people as part of a study, not everyone got sick. “Individuals who were sleeping the least were substantially more likely to develop a cold,” study author Aric Prather, of the University of California, San Francisco told us when the study was published.

5. Exercise and eat well

This is always good advice, and it’s worth emphasizing during times of uncertainty. There’s lots of evidence that daily exercise can help promote feelings of well-being — and boost your immunity. For instance, this study found that physical activity protects against symptoms of anxiety. And getting your heart rate up each day, just by taking a walk, lowers the risk of many chronic conditions. So, keep walking your dog, that counts. Or maybe, get sweaty doing a group activity (Just don’t stand too close to anyone who might be sick!)

What you eat can also help improve your outlook. A recent study found that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein helped reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety among a group of young adults.

“Eating sugar and ultra-processed food increases inflammation and suppresses immune function,” says Mark Hyman, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. So, now may be a good time to lay off the Cheetos and sweets.

6. Wash your hands. 

When an infectious disease hits a community, there’s only so much anyone can do. You can’t sterilize your entire environment. But taking a few preventative actions will help reduce your risk and hopefully relieve your anxiety.

The coronavirus is transmitted from person to person via respiratory droplets. When an infected person sneezes or coughs, droplets containing virus particles are released. If you are standing close, you can become infected. “The respiratory droplets travel about three feet before they tend to settle out of the air, ” says infectious disease expert Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Federal guidelines suggest six feet of separation, so keep your distance.

In addition, droplets can land on surfaces, such as elevator buttons, doorknobs, and shared work spaces. So, if you touch a contaminated surface, then touch your face, you can become infected. The virus can enter your body through your eyes, nose or mouth.

During an outbreak, proper hand-washing is your best defense against a virus. So, follow the evidence-based advice to wash for 20 seconds or more using soap and water. Or use hand sanitizers that contain at least 60% alcohol. In addition, you may want to forego hugging and hand-shakes.  

7. Keep in touch with family and friends.

There’s a good chance you may be asked to self-quarantine in the following weeks, if you haven’t done so already. But that doesn’t mean you should completely isolate yourself, as this will only induce more anxiety altogether. You may not be able to physically speak with them, but talking with your loved ones, friends, and even colleagues or acquaintances can help minimize the isolating effect that social distancing may have on you — even though it’s necessary to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria.

In a perfect world, this means picking up the phone and calling people, or video chatting through a computer. 

And if you’ve noticed someone in your life is contributing to your anxiety, you may feel better by taking a small break from them. Some people are more resilient and better able to manage what’s happening, whereas others can catastrophize — if this is someone who you love and care about, you can express that they’re making it harder on themselves and, more importantly, on you.   It’s also okay to protect yourself by distancing yourself from anyone who’s increasing your stress.

8. Talking to Your Children About Coronavirus

Keep in mind that your anxiety influences those around you.  Too much anxiety creates emotion contagion and spreads panic. That’s not helpful.

Children will naturally have questions about the coronavirus.  Below are some resources to help you talk to your children and help them manage their own anxiety.