Managing Fear In The Age Of The Coronavirus

In all of our minds there is a space - the space in between how risky we perceive something to be, and how well we believe we would cope if the worst happened.  When we overestimate how risky something is, and underestimate our ability to cope, that space gets filled with anxiety and fear.  The increasingly alarming news reports about the Novel Coronavirus, or Covid-19, as it's now known, create the perfect environment for worry, fear, and anxiety to grow unchecked.  Here are some steps that you can take today to shrink that space:

  • Limit news exposure:  We live in a world where it's common for adults (and kids alike)  to use multiple screens at one time.  You might find yourself going back and forth from laptop to iPad to television.  This unfettered access to information leaves us increasingly vulnerable to the 24/7 news cycle, which thrives on breaking news and alarming headlines.  While there is important public health information among the barage of articles, streaming Covid19 updates all day will ratchet up your anxiety without providing much useful intormation.  Pick one, reputable news site, and limit use to one or two times per day, for a set period of time.  

  • Mind your behavior:  When I got home yesterday, as per WHO and CDC recommendations, I washed my hands for twenty seconds, and then I let the dog out.  I looked down at the doorknob that I just touched, and had the urge to wash again, thinking that perhaps I had unwitttingly contaminated my newly clean hands?!  I sat with the urge and waited for it to pass.  While following appropriate guidelines is important for your physical health, being mindful not to go beyond them is important for your mental health.

  • Challenge those thoughts:  When we're trying to suss out how dangerous something is, it's easy to fall prey to the Availability Heuristic - to conjure the pictures of medical personnel in hazmat suits, incomplete fatality statistics, and cruise line quarantines.  Because these images are so readily available, we tend to overestimate personal risk.

  • Learn the difference between ruminating and problem solving:  It's 2am and you're lying awake, staring at the ceiling, taking a mental inventory of your soap and hand sanitizer stash. Next, your brain jumps to the articles you've been reading.  Should you pick up more soap?  Maybe you should check Twitter and see if there are any updates?  How will you manage if you get quarantined?  When faced with a situation that is fraught with uncertainty, it's common to mistake rumination, or obsessing over that which you cannot control, with problem solving.  Ask yourself, is there a problem to be solved?  Have I realistically done all I can to prepare with the information I have?  If the answers to these questions are no and yes, it's likely that you're ruminating.  While it's impossible to forceably evict a thought from your head,  it's helpful to remind yourself that ruminating is not solving your problem. Acknolwedge what it is that you're afraid of - uncertainty, illness, and return to a mindful focus on the present.  Worrying about the future does not change it.  Here are some resources to get you started, courtesy of the UCSD Center for Mindfulness.

  • Maintain your routine:  Structure and routine form the basic building blocks of mental health, and are even more important at times when much of life feels out of control.  As mobility has been increasingly limited throughout the United States, and much of the world, it's important to create new routines.  If you're mostly confined to your home, create a schedule - shower, get dressed, and eat regular meals.  

  • Be gentle with yourself:  Are you feeling more anxious lately?  Heightened anxiety is a normal response to a disease that we're still learning about, and that is impacting much of the world.  Remind yourself that most people are feeling more anxiety these days, you're not alone.  If you find that your anxiety and worry are impacting your day to day life, it may be time to seek professional assistance. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an effective treatment for anxiety and related disorders, such as OCD.

Dr. Scrivani specializes in the Cognitive Behavioral treatment of anxiety, related disorders, and chronic pelvic pain. Tele-mental health services are available to residents of New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Washington, DC, Florida, Michigan and internationally. Call (888) 535-5671 or email [email protected] to set up a free consultation.  Visit my website for more information.

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