- a psychiatrist and physician who studies the effects of anxiety on the brain.
- He says that panic about the coronavirus is natural, but warns that obsession over the outbreak can take a toll on both your mind and body.
- Continued, extreme levels of worry have been shown to increase the risk for physical illnesses — protecting your psychological health will help protect your bodily health.
But no matter how justified your anxiety is, it will eventually take a toll on your brain and the rest of your body. And panic about the coronavirus might be more damaging than the virus itself, according to a recent Facebook post from an infectious disease specialist. That goes for everyone, including healthcare workers: It’s been well documented that healthcare workers during the SARS epidemic developed post-traumatic stress disorder (note that there is an explicit difference between herd mentality panic and trauma).
So how do you alleviate this anxiety? For one, comparing the statistics to that of the common flu does not work, but understanding the root of panic can help. Here are some strategies I recommend for reducing panic and anxiety.
1. Understand that worry actually increases health issues
One of the most significant issues underlying the coronavirus — or any epidemic, really — is uncertainty. Uncertainty makes us expect the worst possible outcome: 75% of people overestimate the likelihood of something bad happening when they’re feeling uncertain, according to a 2009 Michigan State study.
People often choose to worry, as they think it will brace them for threats. In reality, it does not, and in fact has negative consequenceson our lives, including putting our brain in a hyperactive mode in prolonged negative states. This avoids a negative emotional shift and lessens our reactions in a contrasted experience.
Anxiety is also a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Added stress will cause the disease to progress faster, making it even more likely that you’ll become infected. There is a lot of cross-talk between the emotional and immune systems in the body, and each system can mirror the other.
2. Stay informed without becoming obsessed
Make sure you understand the news, but don’t look over it to the point of stress. Stress can make you more obsessive and ruminative. Tell yourself that you’ll stay informed, but not obsessed. This kind of self-talk is important if you want to head stress off at the pass. Also, moderate how much you communicate with your family, friends, and coworkers on the coronavirus. These discussions are not always supportive.
With that, recognize that uncertainty will bias your brain. When you keep hearing bad news, it can skew your understanding of events, and you may irrationally associate certain cues with negative outcomes. Use self-talk to reframe catastrophic thinking by saying, “Uncertainty is a fact of life. There is no need to expect the worst.” Not knowing is very different from needing to expect the worst. The sooner you learn this distinction, the easier you can function without a sense of continuous anticipatory anxiety.
3. Emphasize the positive
Keep yourself engaged in the positive aspects of life, no matter where you are. In the brain, self affirmation can activate reward systems, especially when you think positively about the future. If you enjoy your job, let yourself get wrapped up in your work. Get your adrenaline pumping by doing your favorite exercises or going for a walk. Make a nice dinner; have an at-home date night with your roommates or partner and children. Listen to that song that you just can’t get enough of. Do something that makes you feel good.
Remember, life is inherently uncertain. You can choose to take sensible precautions such as hand-washing or self-isolation when necessary, but worry and overreaction will eventually jeopardize your emotional freedom and physical well-being. Emerging infections will be an ongoing problem, so protecting your psychological health is an important factor as you move forward in life.