When outbreaks — such as the COVID-19 (coronavirus) — occur, it’s normal to experience both fear and anxiety. Outbreaks like the one we’re currently experiencing, can trigger a feeling of powerlessness.
It reminds us that we live in a world where viruses could kill us, despite the fact that the probability of infection from a virus like the 2019-nCOv is very low. It also reminds us that we live in a large, powerful, and complex organism. One that is deeply interconnected and where one change to this system has the ability to impact individuals, businesses, institutions, and entire communities.
Unless you are a scientist or a doctor actively working to find a cure or a vaccine to prevent further transmission, it’s simply not under your control. When we try to control it, our anxiety and fear is exacerbated because it reminds us of our powerlessness. What we do have control over, however, is our reaction.
Controlling our reaction should be the primary focus of our energy and time. We have a sense of responsibility — to our communities and societies — to do our part in not contributing to the spread of the disease while also maintaining the integrity of our health as it impacts the health of those around us.
Identifying what is within our control is an important step in mitigating fear mongering and in stopping chaos from emerging.
What’s Within Our Control?
The sense of powerlessness we experience as a result of being triggered by this outbreak can cause us to isolate ourselves due to fear of contracting the virus. It can also increase our anxiety about being sick, making us hypervigilant to otherwise benign symptoms. For those who already struggle with hypochondria, a viral outbreak can mean increased anxiety and difficulty feeling safe within their bodies and within the world. It can impact relationships and the ability to focus.
Therefore, shifting the attention to what’s within our control will provide both physical and mental protection.
Safety and protective measures
Taking precautions can give back a sense of power. Here is a list of measures that are within our control, also identified as a safety and protective measures list from the World Health Organization:
- Practice good hygiene
- Stay home if sick
- Seek out medical care if necessary
- Avoid close contact with those who are sick
- Cover coughs and sneezes
- Avoid unprotected contact with live animals
- Practice good food safety
It may also be helpful to write down a list of other things that are within your control based on your location and community. For example, someone living in Wuhan, China might have a few additional protective measures than someone living in Idaho, USA.
How we consume media
Another area that we have control over is how we consume information about the outbreak. Do we tend to use reliable sources such as the World Health Organization or do we get our news from unreliable sources? Do we read factual information, or are we engaging in conspiracy theories about the cause of the outbreak? When the information consumed is heavily based on creating fear, it causes increased anxiety which catastrophizes an event.
When Outbreaks Take a Toll on Your Mental Health
It’s human to get worried. It’s also common for the media to exaggerate and exacerbate a problem. When the influx of information begins to impact your mental health, there are steps you can take to help. Let’s dive into a few options for relieving stress and anxiety during an outbreak.
Reaching out to family and friends is important. It’s likely they can relate to some of those fears. Try to remain positive and constructive. It’s easy to stay stuck in fear, rather than focusing on the areas that are within your control.
Challenge your thinking
It is also important to recognize how our thinking is impacted and how it changes our mood. For example, let’s imagine that the immediate thought you have as you hear about the growing number of coronavirus cases is: “It’s growing too fast, what if we can’t stop it?”
Where does your mind go after that?
If you are in a lot of fear, perhaps the next thought will be: “I have been feeling a bit feverish, maybe I’m next,” which can then cause you to isolate and obsess over the fever, instead of focusing on the fact that you live in Idaho, USA, a location that’s very far from the epicenter of the outbreak.
The next thought could be “What if the person next to me on the bus had it too? They were coughing a lot.” Each assumption only exacerbates the existing anxiety. This is how anxiety functions. Thoughts feed the flames. Learning to challenge your thinking is a crucial step in mitigating your anxiety and fear triggered by the outbreak. For some, it is possible to do it on their own. For others, it’s necessary to seek out professional help.
Finally, engaging in mindfulness activities can help you connect to your body in order to track how you’re physically reacting to this outbreak. This doesn’t mean ruminating over possible symptoms, but rather noticing what happens to your body when you hear about the growing number of coronavirus cases. For example, does your heart start to beat faster? Do you feel warm or cold? Do you experience tingles, emptiness, or a sinking feeling? As you start to identify each of these changes in your body, you can then track it and learn what helps and what worsens the reactions. This allows you to be in tune and aligned with the present moment, inhibiting obsessive thoughts and worries.
If you are struggling to manage the anxiety and fear caused by this outbreak, reach out for support! You are not alone. To speak to a therapist today about these fears and anxieties, try online therapy.