Feeling More and More Worried About COVID-19? Experts Explain How to Manage Those Fears

The headlines surrounding coronavirus can be terrifying, with the number of confirmed cases and deaths climbing every day, and with many cities and states still bracing for impact. But while we need to be diligent and take the necessary steps to protect our communities, it's also important not to freak out. Panic, fear, and stress can compromise your immune system, and at a time when you need to be in top form, managing these emotions is one of your best defenses against the virus.

Psychotherapist Dana Dorfman, PhD, explained that it's essential to fight against a pandemic of fear at the same time that we're working to contain the spread of the disease. "Anxiety and panic may be more contagious than the virus itself," Dr. Dorfman told POPSUGAR. "As emotional, empathic, and highly social creatures, humans are greatly influenced by others." In other words, it's essential to distinguish between the very real threat of the virus and the fear you may feel in response to everything else that's going on around you.

So how afraid should you be right now? To be clear, "this is a very serious situation and an unprecedented threat to the global population," said Michael Hall, MD, a board-certified physician based in Miami, FL. It's important that you remain vigilant, but these tips from doctors and psychologists can help prevent your anxieties from spiraling out of control.

1. Get Your Information From Experts

There's a lot of misinformation online, which only serves to fuel fear in the face of such uncertainty.
"Simply doing our due diligence to understand the virus and get helpful information from a respected and qualified health professional or medical expert is all we need to do to dispel the fear of the unknown," Lori Whatley, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of Connected & Engaged, told POPSUGAR. "This is how we take our power back. This is how we stay healthy and fight the viral spread."

What we know about the novel coronavirus is constantly evolving, so rely on resources like the World Health Organization, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, and your local public health department for the latest information. This includes details on symptoms, so you can monitor yourself at home and reach out to a doctor if you're concerned. Again, "it's about preparedness and not panic," explained Andres Romero, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. Your healthcare provider can help you sort through what you're feeling and determine next steps.

2. Take the Necessary Precautions and That's All

While the vast majority of people who contract COVID-19 will recover without experiencing any complications, this isn't a reason to play fast and loose with the advice of experts. "The danger that COVID-19 brings is not so much the illness itself, but the impact it can have on overwhelming the healthcare system all at once, preventing access to care for individuals who become critically ill from COVID-19 or otherwise," Michael Richardson, MD, a family provider at One Medical, told POPSUGAR. "That is why communities and companies are taking well-thought-out, proactive steps to slow the spread of the disease, preventing a dramatic spike in new cases and alleviating the pressure from the healthcare system."

So, even if you're young and otherwise healthy, it's important to follow the guidelines issued by experts and elected officials, including staying home, washing your hands frequently, cleaning high-touch surfaces, wearing a mask, and practicing social distancing when you go out.

However, it's equally important to avoid doing things experts don't recommend, like hoarding supplies. "Overstocking on food and supplies will not protect you from COVID-19; instead, it actually may harm you and your community," Dr. Richardson said. "The more people who adopt the bunker mentality, the more it creates a shortage of supplies for people who need them most, like hand sanitizer and masks for frontline healthcare workers and patients in the hospital." He suggests focusing on only the essentials, adding that "it's helpful to have one to two weeks of nonperishable foods available, but this is just in case you catch COVID-19 and have to quarantine yourself."

3. Find New Ways to Cope

Even with the proper tools, a good understanding of what to do, and solid preparation, anxiety can do a number on us during times of uncertainty. Dr. Dorfman shared some fear-management tips to help you stay positive — and at the same time, protect your health.

  • Label the feeling: Feeling anxious? Afraid? Acknowledge it. "Anxiety is a primitive emotion which signals our brain of physical or emotional danger. Acknowledgment of the feeling can provide an organizing function; the labeling of the feeling assists in containing it."
  • Offer help and support: "Research has revealed that helping and supporting others releases 'feel good' chemicals in our brain. Call a friend who is unwell, make food for someone, or offer to pick up additional groceries for an elderly neighbor. Such acts of kindness reduce some of the feelings of powerlessness."
  • Find moments of levity: "Obviously, this does not mean laughing at the expense of people impacted or suffering," Dr. Dorfman said. Instead, "escape into a comedy, listen to a comedian, or watch a sitcom. This relieves stress, resets our mind, and recalibrates our mood."
  • Don't go down the rabbit hole: "While the situation is evolving and changing, inundating oneself with incessant news and information about the virus is only likely to increase anxiety," said Dr. Dorfman. "Identify specific times of day and duration of exposure (once in the morning and once in the early evening for 10 minutes), give yourself time to process information, then take a break."