At this point, I don’t know many people who aren’t feeling at least a little anxious about the new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. Which, understandable. There’s plenty to be anxious about: the virus itself, how our country is handling the situation, financial and practical concerns around workplace and school closures, and the many unanswered questions still floating around. Of course, given the situation, some anxiety is okay and even helpful. At a manageable level, coronavirus anxiety reminds us to stay vigilant and stick to best infection-prevention practices. Plus, it’s completely human.
That said, for a lot of people—myself included, hi!—anxiety around the new coronavirus has crossed the line from “reasonable and manageable reaction” to “PLEASE HELP ME.” If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, you’re not alone. To help, I talked to a few experts on how to cope. Frankly, though, it’s still going to be a challenge. The situation with the new coronavirus is complicated and unprecedented in many ways. When you combine that with the unwieldy nature of anxiety, there aren’t a ton of straightforward answers out there. Some of these tips might feel contradictory, but that’s unavoidable. Where anxiety is concerned, it’s about knowing yourself and what might make you feel better or worse—and also leaning on professional resources (if you can) when you can’t figure it out on your own.
With that in mind, here’s some advice that might help right now.
1. Don’t try to figure out the difference between “reasonable anxiety” and “too much anxiety.”
Usually a story like this would start out with something like, “First, here are signs that your anxiety has become a problem.” You know, so you can recognize when it’s time to talk to someone or otherwise get help. Believe me, I got caught up in this rabbit hole while reporting this story—but it’s actually not worth the headache. In fact, it might just make you more anxious.
Here’s why: Typically, when it comes to gauging whether something like anxiety has become a problem, experts look at how it’s impacting your life and your ability to function normally. Are you too anxious to go to work or school? Are you skipping out on social situations? Are you avoiding things you normally love? Et cetera. Buuut that criteria doesn’t really apply when we’re talking about the new coronavirus because the disease itself is interfering with how we live our lives.
“It’s perfectly legitimate to worry,” psychologist Baruch Fischhoff, Ph.D., a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and expert in public perception of risk, tells SELF. “It’s a complicated, uncertain situation on multiple levels.”
Given how rapidly the situation is evolving and how many answers experts still don’t have, it’s pretty difficult to try to answer the question, “Am I being too anxious or just anxious enough given the circumstances?” For example, if you’re not particularly at risk of serious illness from COVID-19 but decide to work from home to be super cautious anyway, is that your anxiety interfering with your life or is it a reasonable, responsible choice? Honestly, none of the experts I talked to had a straight answer for this, both because it’s so case by case, but also because it’s just a gray area. “It’s hard to separate that out at this point because coronavirus is real. It’s happening,” Jenny Yip, Psy.D., clinical psychologist who specializes in OCD and anxiety, tells SELF. “It’s not an irrational fear with no basis in reality.”
Instead, what I gathered while reporting is that it’s more helpful to pay attention to when your anxiety interferes with your ability to take care of yourself. There’s no “anxious enough” bar you have to pass to start actively trying to mitigate the new coronavirus’s impact on your mental health. Times are stressful, so regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of coronavirus anxiety right now, look after yourself using the tips on this list. If you have a hard time doing that, prioritize asking for help (more on that later).
2. Limit where you get updates about the new coronavirus.
This is the big one, y’all. Because the situation is ongoing, you might feel the need to remain super plugged in, whether that’s by continuously scrolling Twitter or always having a news channel on in the background. And that’s not great. Staying up on the facts is a good way to manage anxiety and keep things in perspective to a point, but remaining too plugged in is just a recipe for anxiety.
“We know from a lot of the research that high levels of media exposure, especially when it’s repetitive, tends to be associated with psychological distress,” Dana Rose Garfin, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing of University of California, Irvine, tells SELF. Garfin herself researches health psychology and how community disasters impact mental health. She notes that where the new coronavirus is concerned, the media is all working with the same limited information and coverage can get repetitive quickly if you insist on consuming a ton of it.
So what do you do instead? Every expert I talked to suggested pretty much the same thing: Get your updates from a limited number of trustworthy sources and try to drown out the rest of the noise. “It’s important to find sources that provide information the public needs to hear in a non-panicked, non-frenzied way,” Bertha Hidalgo, Ph.D., epidemiologist at the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, tells SELF. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and your state and local health departments are solid places to start, but if you want to expand your options to include leading reporters or other sources that feel more accessible, epidemiologist Tara C. Smith, Ph.D., curated this helpful list of accurate new coronavirus sources for SELF.
3. Control how you get updates.
Trusted sources aside, I also have a few tips around managing news consumption as an anxious human who has to live on the internet for work, often during times of public stress.
First, I’m a big fan of newsletters that deliver a daily summary of important updates straight to my inbox so I don’t have to go searching myself. Several news organizations have new coronavirus newsletters already, including the New York Times, BuzzFeed News, the Washington Post, and more.
If you spend a lot of time on Twitter and consequently find yourself scrolling endlessly, reading take after take as panic builds in your chest—well, I can’t say, “Don’t do that,” because I would be a hypocrite. Disconnecting from Twitter is hard, but do what you can to make it a little less stressful. Make use of Twitter Lists in a way that works for you. Some people follow lists of experts and reporters tweeting a lot about the new coronavirus so they can look for updates all in one place. Personally, I have lists of escapism accounts I follow to get away from COVID-19 news—wholesome meme accounts, TikTok compilation accounts, cute animal accounts (and another for good measure), that sort of thing. Also, I won’t judge you if you just mute “coronavirus” and related words altogether.
Other than that, put little boundaries in place that help you stay on top of news in a mindful way instead of a passive way. Rules like: I won’t scroll through Twitter in bed; I’ll only check the news on my lunch break and at dinner; I’m going to turn off push notifications; I can only read the news for an hour every day. What’s actually realistic and helpful for you will vary, but you get the idea.
4. Focus on what else you can control.
“Anxiety thrives on doubt and uncertainty,” says Yip. And right now, she notes, doubt and uncertainty are really hard to avoid as scientists work to find answers about the new coronavirus and countries scramble to make decisions about how to deal. In the face of all that uncertainty, Yip says it can be important to focus on what you can control instead of what you can’t.
Luckily, there are quite a few things you can control—specifically, sticking to the prevention recommendations that the CDC has outlined for us. Smith also wrote this post for SELF about things to do if you’re worried about the new coronavirus, including creating an emergency kit and brushing up on your emergency plan.
Garfin also recommends keeping your preparation in perspective. Instead of letting your anxieties run wild while stocking up on shelf-stable foods because the end of times are near and you have to be prepared, oh, my God, remind yourself that being prepared is a good idea all year round. We’re just paying more attention to it right now. “Planning for a potential pandemic or a potential disaster, if it’s in a kind of measured, realistic, non-panicked way, is always a good thing,” says Garfin.
If you’re someone who has an anxiety disorder, you might be thinking this seems counterintuitive to how you usually handle your anxiety. Like, I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy unlearning the many ways I accommodate my irrational fears. So making the jump to our anxieties feeling justified and rational for once might cause some understandable whiplash. Again, the answer is perspective and being kind to yourself. Try to stick to what’s recommended, but also don’t stress about the difference between preparation and over-preparation if it’s making you spiral, says Yip.
5. Remember you don’t always have to act on your anxieties.
Preparation is good, but so is mindfulness. If you stick to official recommendations in your area and for your population group, you don’t have to go super above and beyond in all of your decision-making. “It’s about being aware of your fears and how they’re affecting your behavior and mood instead of treating them as fact,” clinical psychologist Suzanne Mouton-Odum, Ph.D., tells SELF. “You can notice it and be curious about it, but you don’t have to necessarily do anything about it.”
For example, Mouton-Odum says you might notice you’re feeling more anxious than usual today and it’s making you not want to go to the grocery store. “That’s when you have to challenge your fear with rational thought,” she says. “Are there cases of coronavirus in your area? Has your local health department made it clear you don’t have to stay inside? How do you challenge some of those thoughts instead of just assuming that the thought is true and therefore, to keep yourself safe, you should avoid the grocery store?”
The reason this is important—especially where leaving your house is concerned—is because anxiety feeds on isolation and inactivity. Not only can isolation be bad for your mental health in general, but it gives you more time to stew in obsessive thoughts. “Isolating yourself completely can make the threat feel more real than the truth,” Jon Abramowitz, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina, tells SELF. “When we take all these huge precautions, it sends the message to ourselves that danger is lurking around every corner.”
6. Write down all your worries for 15 minutes.
As part of her work with clients who deal with excessive anxieties, Yip uses several thought exercises for cognitive exposure therapy. For people feeling stuck in their new coronavirus anxieties, she suggests what she calls “15-Minute Worry Time.” It’s what it sounds like: Take 15 minutes to write down all of your new coronavirus worries. “The purpose of this is to externalize your internal fears outside so that you can actually see them in a tangible way,” says Yip.
There are two rules, though. The first is that you have to write worry statements, not ruminations. What’s the difference? Specificity, mostly. You want to focus on outcomes instead of feelings. “A worry statement is, ‘I’m worried that I will contract coronavirus.’ ‘I’m worried that if I contract it, then I might die.’ ‘I worry that if I die, my family will miss me,’” says Yip. “Rumination is, ‘I’m worried that if I get coronavirus, I’ll get very, very sick, and then I’ll spread my germs to my family members, and then we all might die, and that would be the worst thing ever, I’m so worried that we’re going to get sick.’ With worry statements, there is a beginning and end. Rumination just keeps spiraling.”
The second rule is that you have to write for the full 15 minutes. If you run out of worries, you have to recycle the worries you already listed over and over again. According to Yip, you can do this multiple times a day as needed.
“Essentially, you’re replaying the same thing until you get bored,” she says. “You become so mentally exhausted from hearing the same story and eventually you’re able to zoom out of your fear and get a better perspective based on reality, instead of what your mind is emotionally latched onto.”
7. Do a guided meditation.
I have never been a meditation person. As a mental health reporter, I’ve written about the alleged benefits and how it’s life-changing for some, but I’ve simply never gotten on the bandwagon. Well, turns out I just needed a pandemic to ruin my ability to sleep and make me desperate enough to give it a real shot. And it’s been helping. If you’re also struggling to shut off a nonstop stream of anxious mental chatter, I recommend it.
My go-to recommendation is Headspace because of how beginner-friendly it is. That said, there are also guided meditations all over the internet. The meditation app Simple Habit recently launched a series specifically for coping with new coronavirus fears, including meditations to “Accept Unpredictability” and to “Ease Travel Fears.” While I can’t vouch for all of them—nor can we predict if they’ll remain relevant as things continue to unfold—I did find the ones I listened to helpful in their specificity. Additionally, the Healing Justice Podcast has some grounding exercises within this stellar episode centered on COVID-19 prep for people living with chronic illness and disability.
8. Stay connected to other people.
Since anxiety breeds in isolation, it’s important to do what we can to stay socially connected. You might have to get creative about how you do this. Right now, the SELF staff is all working from home, and I know that after a few days of this, I’m going to get some cabin fever. So I’ll be combating loneliness by coworking with friends who are also working from home (for as long as it’s safe to do so) and calling people on my breaks so I don’t go a whole day without speaking to another human out loud.
Staying connected might look different for you. Maybe you’ll take advantage of voice chat while online gaming or join a Slack channel (basically a chatroom used in a lot of workplaces, but people use it for social purposes too). Maybe you and your friends can start cooking together instead of going out. The point is that it might take more effort now than it did before to keep the same level of social support.
9. Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can with the available information.
Like we mentioned earlier, anxiety feeds on uncertainty, which there’s certainly a lot of right now. Should you cancel your trip? Should you avoid the subway? What about the gym? There are a lot of questions out there, all with the same unsatisfying answer: Stay on top of recommendations, and beyond that, use your best judgment. But I don’t have “best judgment,” I have anxiety!!!
The best thing you can do in response to this outrageously frustrating and anxiety-inducing dilemma is try to take some of the pressure off. We’re all obsessed with making the “right” decisions to avoid the new coronavirus—and get caught up imagining what will happen if we make the “wrong” decisions—but frankly, a lot of it is beyond our control. To help, Fischhoff (who has served as a past president of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making) suggests keeping the following in mind:
“Generally speaking, people make good decisions,” he says. “They’re thoughtful, they’re prudent, they’re trying to do the right thing. But there are two biases we should remember that we’re susceptible to.” The first, he says, is “outcome bias,” when we judge the quality of our decisions by how things turn out, instead of how thoughtfully the decision was made. And the second is “hindsight bias,” when we exaggerate how predictable an outcome was and beat ourselves up for not seeing what now seems obvious.
This is all to say that as the new coronavirus situation unfolds, things are going to happen and we’re all probably going to find ourselves wishing we did X instead of Y. Knowing this is part of why we feel so anxious, because we want to do what we can to keep from feeling that way. But the truth is, we probably can’t. “If you’re following all the available recommendations and making thoughtful decisions, you’re doing the best you can,” says Fischhoff. “If things do turn out badly, don’t add the insults of regret and blame to the injury of whatever might go wrong.”
10. Tap into some professional help.
I only list this last because it’s a good note to end on—not because you have to try to manage all on your own before bringing in professional reinforcements. If you’re feeling anxious about the new coronavirus at any point, you should discuss it with your therapist if you have one or seek out someone to talk to if you think it might be helpful.
Of course, finding a new mental health practitioner can be difficult on a good day. Add that to potential office closures and social-distancing measures, and you might not be able to get an appointment right now. You have other options, though. Places like BetterHelp and Talkspace match you with online or mobile therapists. And though they’re not replacements for therapy, crisis prevention hotlines such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line (text 741-741) are available even if you’re not in immediate danger. If you need someone to talk to immediately before you find a therapist, they’re there for you.
Beyond that, be kind to yourself. Managing anxiety at a time like this is going to be a challenge. We’ll have good days and bad days, and the coping skill that works today might not work tomorrow. But—believe me when I say I know how cheesy this is, but I mean it—we’re not alone, and we’re doing the best we can. And right now, that has to be good enough for me.