Feature: The Psychology of COVID-19 Fear

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is undoubtedly stressful for everyone. Fear and anxiety about this disease and the misinformation surrounding it have become overwhelming. If unaddressed, fear can cause real problems both for adults and children. Understanding fear and finding ways to cope with stress will help you, your loved ones, and your community stay strong.

Your background life experience, education, everyday habits and the community in which you live can contribute to the way you respond to stress. Even your DNA is partially responsible. As this tragedy plays itself out, three main responses to the stress seem to be emerging.

At one end of the spectrum, people glued to the media are approaching hysteria. Irrational fear can lead to compulsive and unnecessary behavior like obsessive sanitizing, repeatedly checking their body temperature, losing sleep, etc.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who refuse to take the crisis seriously. Images of college students partying on the beach during spring break, groups of people gathered in a close game of basketball and COVID parties are all over the news.

And of course, you have the outlandish reaction of conspiracy theorists who say the Chinese weaponized COVID-19 against us, racists who are scapegoating and physically attacking Asians, and political extremists who push the idea that the media invented the virus to thwart the President’s reelection.

Where do we go from here?

First, Look Within

Fear is a natural reaction embedded deep within our DNA. Fight-or-flight is a human response when the brain perceives a threat. Your brain is wired for survival; it wants to keep you alive. Therefore, it is constantly assessing your surroundings to decide what is safe and what isn’t.

When your brain thinks you are in danger, your logical thoughts are overridden by the emotional and primitive instinct to survive. The brain likes to have access to information. When information is lacking, the brain assumes danger is present. This sometimes results in an overestimation of danger and this is why you can feel panic, anxiety and fear.

Pay attention to changes in sleep, concentration or appetite. If you find yourself worrying excessively about your health and the health of your loved ones, you might be experiencing stress.

Next, Get the Facts

Let’s give the brain the information it so badly wants. Understanding the actual risk facing us is important. This means staying away from rumors and unreliable sources.

Look to reputable sources when seeking information. The CDC updates its site regularly and recently posted these facts:

  • For most people, the immediate risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to be low.
  • Someone who has completed quarantine or has been released from isolation does not pose a risk of infection to other people.
  • There are simple things you can do to help keep yourself and others healthy.
  • You can help stop COVID-19 by knowing the signs and symptoms:
    • Fever
    • Cough
    • Shortness of breath

Take Care of Yourself

By caring for yourself and others, you can more easily deal with this stressful situation. Take care of your body by eating a well-balanced diet, getting plenty of exercise and sleep and maybe even trying something new like yoga or meditation. Take care of your mind by limiting your exposure to media coverage of the crisis, maintaining a regular schedule, connecting with others and doing things you enjoy.

Practice Social – Not Emotional – Distance

Social distancing is working. And surprisingly there is no doubt about it. Just a short time ago, it had seemed almost impossible to measure the effectiveness of social distancing. But a company called Kinsa Health that produces inter-connected thermometers was able to prove social distancing is, in fact, working.

Of course, it is imperative for everyone to heed the evidence-based health warnings: practice social distancing and wash your hands. However, taking the warnings to extremes and becoming overly wary of others can spur loneliness and isolation.

We can ward off these negative feelings if we remember that the entire world is in this together and take some comfort in that perspective.

We can remain connected to friends and family digitally if not physically. Ironically, many have criticized technology for destroying our human connection over the past decade. Right now, it is that very technology holding our human connections together.

343,000 people downloaded Zoom this past Wednesday March 25, compared to 90,000 on that day a year ago. Many people were already familiar with Zoom for professional communication. But now it’s the key to keeping us socially connected.

We can diminish feelings of fear by seeking connection and support. We can participate in the trend of virtual happy hours with friends and colleagues or teach a grandparent how to use Zoom. Online communities have existed for years. Even those without many connections can find solace in message boards or Facebook support groups during this tumultuous time.

Look for the Silver Lining

It has been a harrowing experience and, at times, it feels like the world is ending. During these times of uncertainty, it is certainly tempting to focus on the worst-case scenario.

But if you’re safe and healthy and you push yourself to think creatively, you might see that not every single thing that happened this past month was awful. By looking hard enough, you may be able to find a few silver linings in your quarantined existence.

Pay attention to the positive things happening out there. Look closely enough and you’ll see neighbors helping one another, corporations finding ways to be generous and helpful, and the humanity in all of us rising to the surface.

A positive way to look at this extended period of isolation is to view it as an act of unified solidarity. Something we do alone, but also together.

If you, or someone you care about, are feeling overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety, the CDC recommends reaching out to the following resources:

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