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Coronavirus anxiety and fears: 5 tips from a psychotherapist on how to cope

How to keep your spirits up and fears down as the COVID-19 outbreak continues.

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

As the coronavirus sweeps across various nations and death tolls climb, many people are finding themselves worried -- panicked, even -- about the World Health Organization calling COVID-19 a pandemic. You can hardly be blamed for feeling anxious about the novel coronavirus when news about COVID-19 is as widespread as the disease itself. 

Haley Neidich, a licensed psychotherapist, tells CNET that it's completely normal to experience fear and anxiety right now. 

"When a disease outbreak [like COVID-19] occurs, people tend to panic due to the fear of the unknown and deeply unsettling lack of control they experience," Neidich explains. "The constant news cycle, misinformation and bombardment of fearful messages on social media at this time seems to have people especially panicked." 

Neidich says it's especially important to keep your spirits up during this time because of the impact that stress can have on your immune system. 

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"My biggest concern about the panic is the stress that it causes for each individual," Neidich says, noting that when panic occurs, events are canceled and shelves are cleared out of necessary items which only further increases stress. 

"Stress and panic begets stress and panic," she continues. "Stress weakens our immune systems, making us more susceptible to illness, which is the exact opposite of what we need right now."

If you're struggling with coronavirus anxiety, fear or feelings of helplessness, these tips can help keep your spirits up. 

Read more: The best meditation app to help you destress     

A few key facts about the state of coronavirus in the US

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A map of coronavirus cases on March 10, 2020.

Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE)

Staying up to date with the facts -- and avoiding the rumors, anecdotes and personal opinions you find on social media -- can help keep coronavirus anxiety down. 

So far, the WHO says coronavirus isn't at an "uncontained global spread." On March 9, 2020, the WHO acknowledged the quick spread of coronavirus, but reminds us that "Of all the cases reported globally so far, 93% are from just four countries" and "Most countries still have sporadic cases or defined clusters."

Despite the quick spread, many coronavirus patients are recovering or recovered: As of March 9, 2020, more than 70% of the 80,000 cases in China have recovered and been discharged, the WHO reports.

Plus, most people in the US do not have a high risk of developing serious illness from the virus. Certain groups of people in the US have a higher risk of developing complications due to COVID-19, including the elderly and people with heart disease, lung disease and diabetes (these groups should follow special prevention guidelines from the CDC). 

If you aren't one of those people, your risk of getting very ill in the US is still relatively low. Just be sure to take practical steps to protect yourself.

For most people in the US, basic personal hygiene and common sense is enough to keep coronavirus away. The CDC and the WHO maintain that washing your hands regularly and following other hygiene rules that you should follow all the time -- like sneezing into a tissue that you can immediately throw away -- is the best way to stay healthy during the coronavirus outbreak

At this point in time, you don't need to take any extreme measures, which should be a comfort. 

If you're still anxious, try these tips from a psychotherapist

Though simple, these tips from Neidich can make a big difference in your day-to-day anxiety levels about coronavirus. 

1. Limit the amount of information you consume

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Limiting your time on social media is one of the best ways to keep coronavirus anxiety from spiraling. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Neidich recommends setting a limit of 30 minutes for news and social media combined each day, as well as challenging yourself to take two full days each week with no news or social media. 

Even if you don't go on your devices explicitly to check coronavirus news, during this time, you'll be bombarded -- so taking time off is an easy way to soothe anxiety. Setting Screen Time controls on iOS or Focus Mode controls on Android can help you restrict your overall screen time or the way you interact with certain apps.

2. Focus on the things you can control

Truthfully, there's not much you can do about what's happening around you. You can only take care of yourself, so that's what you should focus on, Neidich says. Follow the advice of the major health agencies monitoring and fighting coronavirus in the US -- the CDC and the WHO. 

  • Wash your hands often (and sanitize them when you don't have soap and water)
  • Stay away from people who are sick
  • Cover your mouth when you cough and your nose when you sneeze (ideally with a tissue that you can throw away)
  • Avoid touching your face whenever possible
  • Leave the face masks for medical professionals, caretakers and people with compromised immune systems
  • Avoid nonessential travel (locally, domestically and internationally)
  • Keep your immune system strong by eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and managing stress

3. Stay busy with other things

This is a classic tactic for keeping anxiety under control. While you should definitely honor your feelings (more on that in the next tip), try not to allow your thoughts to spiral out of control. Focus on your daily obligations and add in fun activities to your days to keep anxiety to a minimum, Neidich says. Here are a few examples of simple, distracting activities you can try:

  • Solve a puzzle or play a board game with your family
  • Draw, paint, knit or do something else creative
  • Try to bake a masterpiece dessert with ingredients you already have in your kitchen
  • Read your favorite novel or watch your favorite movie
  • Take a nap
  • Call someone you love and talk about things other than the coronavirus

4. Set aside time to worry

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Writing down your thoughts about coronavirus can help you work through them.

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Allow yourself time to work through your thoughts about coronavirus. If you ignore them, they'll continue to persist, Neidich says. She recommends journaling by hand on how you feel about COVID-19. Grab a piece of paper and a pen, set a timer and just allow the words to flow onto paper. You don't have to keep the paper when you're done -- throwing it out can be cathartic and make it feel like you're emptying your mind of worries.

Set a timer for 3 minutes for worry journaling, Neidich says. "You will find that you'll run out of worries before the timer is up. Once this is complete, shift your attention to self-care and keep your mind busy."

5. Vent to a friend who won't judge you

If you're more of a talker than a writer, Neidich says it can help to confide in a friend about how you're feeling. Talk to someone who won't judge you for the way you feel, but try to avoid talking to someone who will fuel your anxiety even further. The key, Neidich says, is choosing someone who understands how you feel but won't perpetuate the fear you see online. 

For people in states with confirmed cases

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The CDC's visual risk assessment on March 10, 2020. The US is still considered to be a low-risk geographic region.

CDC

Neidich notes that anxiety and fear may be even more intense for people who live in US states where there are confirmed cases of coronavirus. If that's you, Neidich's main advice is to arm yourself with the facts. 

"Don't jump to conclusions or engage in fortune telling, regardless of how easy it is to let fear take over," Neidich says. "Just because there is a case in your state, does not mean that you or your loved ones are going to be infected. Instead, focus on managing your stress and focusing on your day-to-day activities." 

For people at a higher risk of developing serious illness

Another group of people who may have heightened fear and anxiety about coronavirus are those who have a higher risk of developing serious complications from the virus. According to the CDC, those groups are the elderly and people with certain chronic diseases. 

If you fall into one of those groups, Neidich says the best way to stay calm is to focus on things you can do to prevent yourself from contracting coronavirus, such as maintaining good personal hygiene and avoiding contact with people who are sick (with anything, not just coronavirus). 

"There is so much that we don't have control over in life, particularly for those who have chronic illnesses, and COVID-19 is no different," she says. "I invite people in this situation to focus on what they are able to control and to make sure they have a loved one or a counselor to confide in about their emotional experience." 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.