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Coronavirus anxiety? Experts offer coping tactics amidst uncertainty

‘You want to strike a balance between being informed and catastrophizing’

  • Created: February 26, 2020

As the coronavirus-borne disease COVID-19 continues to spread globally, financial markets start to slump and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) increasingly warns of potential outbreaks in the United States, anxiety surrounding the disease is spiking. 

Stewart Shankman, chief of psychology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, can speak about coping mechanisms for anxiety related to COVID-19. Catherine Belling, associate professor of medical education at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, discuss anxiety and how to decipher what might be hypochondria versus rational concern about the virus.   

Reporters can contact Shankman via email at stew.shankman@northwestern.edu. To arrange interviews with Belling, reporters should contact Kristin Samuelson at 847-491-4888 or ksamuelson@northwestern.edu or Marla Paul at 312-503-8928 or marla-paul@northwestern.edu. 

Quotes from Shankman:

“You want to strike a balance between being informed and catastrophizing. It is important for people to know there’s a difference between increased risk and guaranteed risk – that is, we often tell patients just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s probable. It is true that there’s a higher likelihood of contracting this virus than there was a year ago but that doesn’t mean there’s a guarantee you’ll catch this. And there’s a difference between people contracting the virus versus dying from it. 

“In general, we’d recommend standard anxiety management practices: deep breathing, trying to relax your body through muscle relaxation exercises, yoga and other forms of exercise. People should also be aware of the amount of time they are spending researching the virus. There’s a difference between reading one article a day versus spending hours and hours a day reading about it. If people are spending a lot of time researching the numbers instead of living their lives, that could be problematic.”

Quotes from Belling:

“The real issue with COVID-19 at present is uncertainty, even among those who have the most information (the CDC, the World Health Organization): they have data for establishing statistical probabilities, but these don't translate into absolute predictions, especially at the local level. And each step away from that source just increases the uncertainty, so that for the public it is hard to believe worst-case scenarios, and maybe even harder to believe confident-sounding reassurances.

“Anxiety is defined and created by uncertainty, so that's where most people are right now to differing degrees. The problem with associating ‘hypochondria’ with worry about COVID-19 is that we often use the term to reassure ourselves (paradoxically) (e.g. ‘There's nothing really wrong, you're just being a hypochondriac.’). There’s no correlation between how worried you are and the probability of actually getting sick.

 Obviously in the case of COVID-19, we don't know yet how bad or not bad things will get, both at a population level (will it become a pandemic? will it spread in the U.S.? in Chicago?) and also at a personal level (what if I or my loved ones contract it? or even what if I get quarantined / if we lose essential services, etc?). 

“Humans can't avoid running scenarios in their minds (it's how we prepare for everything); some people are more likely to imagine horror stories; some imagine unrealistically soothing ones. Both of those can be harmful: the first makes you panic, the second makes you complacent. The trick is finding a productive balance.

“In the context of a real but uncertain threat like this, it is perfectly rational (rather than ‘hypochondriacal’) to be worried. What matters is what you do with that anxiety. 

“At this point, a productive response means acquiring updating information from a reliable source—the CDC, not multiple social media feeds—and beginning to develop practical contingency plans (e.g. What if schools are closed? Can I work from home? Whom should I call if I develop flu-like symptoms?). These can be reassuring in that you are staying as prepared as possible, and then you can focus on other things while we wait to see how things turn out, which is very difficult but unavoidable.”