Confronting Feelings of Powerlessness During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Published on: 09 Mar 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by the 2019 novel Coronavirus began in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, in December 2019, and has spread throughout China and to 31 other countries and territories, including the United States. As of February 23, 2020, there were 76,936 reported cases in mainland China and 1,875 cases in locations outside mainland China. As of March 9, 2020, there have been 3,841 associated deaths worldwide and 22 deaths reported in the United States.

While it’s important to be mindful and take proper precautions against the virus, it’s equally important to remember that, while this outbreak has caused more concern than the typical seasonal flu, what many don’t recognize is that just last year an estimated 10,000 people died from the “typical” seasonal flu and approximately 19 million were sickened. Perspective and risk assessment are powerful antidotes to panic.

Why is Coronavirus Causing Such an Uproar?

It’s important to mention that, while we’re hearing and reading that Americans are fearful, in reality, there is no research stating that a definite need for fear exists. We can say that it’s important to be cautious and perhaps concerned about protecting those who are most vulnerable to Coronavirus, but announcements about the need for genuine fear or anxiety would represent a definitive and substantial escalation in the seriousness of the outbreak. Instead health officials are calling for us to take precautions and remain calm.

The uproar and hyperbolic rhetoric about Coronavirus is causing may come, first and foremost, from the fact that we do not know much about it in comparison to other illnesses. Its novelty is what most stokes our fears.

Why Do We Feel So Powerless Facing Coronavirus?

To start, when we hear the word “pandemic,” some of us jump to the conclusion that the end of the world is near and imagine people running to local supermarkets to acquire supplies. However, despite the fear the word evokes, pandemic refers only to the spread of a disease, rather than how transmissible or deadly. If more of us were aware of that fact, perhaps we would feel more at ease during discussions of the Coronavirus.

We don’t know with full certainty how contagious the virus is. Though China has reported many casualties, research is still preliminary and, as is often the case, the lack of knowledge is a major influencer on anxiety and concern.

Generally speaking, a lack of knowledge can make people feel powerless and much more vulnerable. It is no wonder then that the outbreak of an unfamiliar virus magnifies our discomfort.

Ways to Manage “Feeling out of Control”

One of the defining characteristics of anxiety is to exhibit a feeling of worry or nervousness. An excellent way to mitigate feelings of anxiety is to find trusted sources of information like those from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the CDC and to rely on them for updates and factual data. These government agencies are void of sensationalism and panic, and they communicate accurate information in a timely manner. This can help alleviate poor understanding of Coronavirus and what it is capable of — it can also reduce our anxiety.

Trust is also important. Luckily, in the United States we have professionals and organizations arduously and assiduously working to protect us. These health care professionals and scientists have our best interest and good health as their priority. Hence, trusting them and following their recommendations is a key factor in avoiding panic and overreaction.

When health problems develop abroad, we are often anxious because we imagine that their medical services are substandard or inferior to ours. This may or may not be true, but it all goes back to being informed of the facts to mitigate these dubious assumptions.

Girding ourselves with knowledge, staying informed, and relying on trusted sources can decrease anxiety and feelings of powerlessness. When we look at the reactions of world health organizations, and how each prepared to combat the virus as soon as word of its spread began, we should be able to put the situation in perspective and reframe the panicked rhetoric and responses that we may be hearing in media reports. Perhaps some governments did not initially take the threat seriously enough, and helped the virus’s preliminary spread, but the global community is now onboard in the fight to stop it.

The word “quarantine” also plays an important part in creating anxiety. It sends the message that perhaps the disease is already out of control, when in reality these kinds of measures are among the best ways to protect us and keep us safe. Thinking about the positive aspects of a quarantine can be more helpful than worrying about the perceived negative effects.

What to Do to Reduce Anxiety

It cannot be overstated that one of the most important things we can do is educate ourselves and stay informed by using trusted sources of information.

Ask yourself the following: Are there are any reasons for you to believe that you are at particular risk? Did you travel to a specific high-risk country recently? Are there any cases where you work or live? If there are not, it’s best to stay calm and informed. If you feel sick, have come into contact with an infected individual, or traveled to a country with a sizable outbreak there are presumptive tests for COVID-19, which are now being distributed more widely, so you do not have to live in doubt.

Do what you can to educate others after you do your own research, but remember to only use valid and trusted sources. Trusted resources recommend that we wash our hands well (20 seconds minimum) and cover our mouth with our arm when we cough or sneeze. Teach others these recommendations and lead by example. If you are a parent, here’s how to talk to your kids about Coronavirus.

Be respectful and supportive of others who are feeling anxious. It is during times like these that we have to stay calm, informed, united, and supportive of one another. Our positive, informed attitude will lead to similar attitudes and help us avoid greater risk.

Remember, as individuals we can rise above fear by staying calm, following protocol, and being well informed — in this manner we can best positively impact health outcomes for ourselves and others. If you’re struggling to stay calm, consider seeking help from an online therapist.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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