People are quarantined in their homes in China, France banned gatherings of people larger than 5,000, and hand sanitizer and masks were the latest accessories at Paris fashions shows — all because of the spread of the coronavirus (also known as COVID-19).
There is a great deal of fear surrounding the coronavirus and the possibility of it hitting the U.S. hard. While there is no shortage of information about the virus itself, the death toll, reported cases (especially in the U.S.), and best practices for prevention, there is not a lot of insight about how to cope with the uncertainty surrounding the spread and effects of the disease.
Even if you follow the straightforward World Health Organization recommendations for reducing your chance of infection, you might experience a great deal of worry about this disease and be fearful of contracting it. The media hype surrounding the spread of the disease doesn’t help to assuage those fears with headlines like, “Here Comes the Coronavirus Pandemic.”
It can be hard not to let these headlines get to you — before you know it, you are hyper-focused on anything that could potentially indicate you or someone you love has contracted the virus:
Is that just a sneeze or something more?
Do I have a fever even though my temperature seems normal?
What if I just contracted the virus but I’m not showing any symptoms yet?
What if my grandmother catches the virus? Her immune system is already a little weak.
These worries can become overwhelming and extremely stressful if left unchecked. It can get to the point where you don’t even want to go outside for fear of being exposed to the virus. But there’s no need to live in fear: there are some simple things you can do to help handle the emotional stress surrounding the coronavirus.
Cut through the hype
For every sensational headline (e.g. “To Fight Coronavirus, France Urges No More Greetings with Kisses, Bans Large Gatherings”), there is a practical headline to give you what you need to know. Sensational headlines are designed to get you to click on them, and they often take one small piece of news and blow it out of proportion. What’s worse, these dramatic headlines tap right into the anxiety surrounding the spread of the virus and the unknowns surrounding it. (Do you really need to create a quarantine survival kit?)
Instead of getting sucked into the sensationalized headlines, focus on the facts. For example, the World Health Organization has very straightforward information about how to prevent the spread of the virus. The WHO recommends frequently washing your hands, covering your mouth with the bend of your elbow or a tissue when coughing, and maintaining a distance of at least three feet from people who are coughing or sneezing.
Beyond these recommendations, there is not much more you can do to prevent becoming infected. In fact, the WHO recommends wearing a mask only if you have symptoms of COVID-19 (coronavirus), if you are caring for someone with symptoms, or if you are working in a healthcare setting. If you are following their recommendations for hand washing, maintaining distance, and covering your mouth when sneezing, you are doing exactly what you need to do to decrease your chances of contracting the virus. If you are following these guidelines, you are doing all you can to minimize your chance of getting infected.
In contrast, those sensationalized news stories encourage your brain to jump on the “irrational thoughts” train where, instead of focusing on the facts of the virus and its prevention, it focuses on all of the things that might happen — even if the chances of them happening are extremely unlikely. An example of an irrational thought might be something like, “What if I catch the coronavirus while I’m out grocery shopping and then I get quarantined, but not before I’m the one who spreads it to the rest of the people in my community?”
When you find yourself experiencing an irrational thought, remind yourself of the facts that you know. You know how the disease is spread (through respiratory droplets when a person coughs or sneezes and up to a range of six feet) and you know what you can do to prevent the spread of the disease. To focus on anything beyond that is to fuel unnecessary worry.
Practice mindfulness and acceptance
Another strategy to use when you are feeling overwhelmed by all of the news surrounding the spread of coronavirus is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply acknowledging feelings of discomfort and stress in a non-judgmental way, which can help neutralize the strength of your anxieties about coronavirus and make it possible for you to accept the uncertainty surrounding the disease.
For example, practicing mindful acceptance could take the form of thinking, “While I hope that I or my loved ones don’t contract the coronavirus, I can only focus on what is within my control. Worry won’t change whether or not I contract coronavirus, but I can practice the simple WHO recommendations. I am choosing not to let the fear of coronavirus prevent me from living my life and enjoying the present moment.”
A mindful statement like this helps you to acknowledge the reality of the seriousness and uncertainty of the spread of the coronavirus, while simultaneously grounding you in the fact that you can choose how to respond.
An important piece of practicing mindful acceptance is placing your trust in God that He is watching over you — no matter what happens. Prayer can be a powerful way to practice mindful acceptance. God is ultimately in control of what happens — not you — and to fight for control will only leave you feeling drained, anxious, and discouraged.
If you or a loved one contracts coronavirus
Of course, there is also the possibility that you or a loved one could contract the coronavirus, despite the preventive practices you’ve taken. First of all, it is important not to blame yourself or others for “failing” to prevent contracting the disease. It can be easy to go over every interaction and place you’ve been, searching for that one moment where you must have caught the virus. Similar to when you catch the flu or a cold, it’s often impossible to know how and when you caught the bug. The reality is that knowing how and when you caught the virus doesn’t change the fact that you have it. Following that road of “what ifs” leads nowhere.
Instead, focus on what you can do to care for yourself or your loved one. Acknowledge the stress of coping with having the coronavirus, but don’t resign yourself to the worst-case scenario.
Instead, practice gratitude. There is a great deal of research about how practicing gratitude can help sick individuals (including cancer patients) improve their overall sense of wellbeing, reduce psychological distress, and improve the use of coping skills. Practicing gratitude could look like writing down three positive things that happened to you that day (e.g. a friend calling you on the phone, a sunny day, or a great book). Practicing gratitude can also be a form of prayer, which has its own health benefits.