Managing anxiety about coronavirus

Coronavirus,  COVID-19, the great toilet paper shortage of 2020, regardless of the name, information and news about the virus is everywhere, all the time, every day. 

The problem with hearing about the virus all the time is that we are more likely to over-evaluate the threat and become very anxious about getting sick.  Illness anxiety is a normal occurrence, but when it starts to interfere with our lives it can create problems for us, whether we start visiting the doctors more, find it difficult to concentrate at work, when we socialise, or when we are by ourselves.

Thankfully, there are several straight forward strategies we can use to help us think in a more balanced way, and spend more time focused on what is important to us rather than worry. 

Limit checking the news

Although it is useful to keep up to date with health recommendations via reliable sources, be wary of spending excessive amounts of time sourcing information. We tend to do this to reduce our anxiety and feel more in control, yet it typically has the opposite effect and creates more worries for us. Why keep checking the threat?

Consider the balanced view

What if the news spent time talking about all those who don’t have the virus? There are more than 24 million people in Australia. If we stated the number of people with the virus as a percentage of the population, it would be less than 1% (as of 27th March, 2020)…does that change the way you see the threat?

Focus on the here and now

We can do this by practising mindfulness. We are geared to figure out where the threat is in our environment. That is why we also tend to focus on news indicating that something is going wrong. Figuring out the risk can be useful at times, but when we cannot bring our attention back from those worries, it can create problems. So choose to bring your attention back to what you are doing at the time (e.g., breathing, washing dishes, cleaning your teeth, watching tv, reading a book, to name a few), and practice being present focused.

 Postpone worries and focus on problems you can solve

This may be a key one to attend to here. While it is normal for worries about our health to pop up in our minds, the more we focus on these worries, the more anxiety symptoms we trigger in our bodies, in turn giving us, even more, to worry about!

Many people with illness anxiety will try to distract themselves or tell themselves not to think about their health. Unfortunately, trying not to think about something can have the opposite effect by making us think about it even more (e.g., try not to think of a giraffe wearing a top hat for the next 60 seconds and see how well you do).

So, if focusing on worry increases worry…and avoiding the thoughts increases worry…what can we do?

There is a third option called worry postponement. Postponing your worries means that we postpone engaging in a worrying thought as soon as we think about it. For example, it is normal for an initial worrisome thought to pop into your mind (e.g., “what if I have this virus”). As soon as you notice the worrying thought, make a decision not to ‘think more about’ the worries or symptoms any further at that particular time. Then, we can set up a specific time (e.g., 7 pm) that we can problem-solve these worries for a set time-frame (e.g., 15 minutes). We call this time-frame, ‘worry time’. When you notice an illness related worry, just write it down in a few words and decide to think about it later during your ‘worry time’. Then you can use your mindfulness to bring your attention back to what you are currently doing.

When you get to your ‘worry time’, only problem solve the worries that you feel you must think about further. That is, what can you do practically? If the thought no longer bothers you, then you do not need to think about them any further. If you had so many worries, and you ran out of time to cover all the things on your list, remind yourself you can cover them in tomorrow’s ‘worry time’.

You may be saying to yourself that there is no way this would work… That’s ok, let’s treat it as a little experiment and see what happens when you give it a go.

Problem solving

Despite these worries, we also know that there is a virus spreading around, so to help you get started on your problem-solving time, we need to consider the practicalities of some healthy habits that we can employ now. Here are some things to do:

  • Practice recommended hand hygiene. Washing our hands is a simple and effective practice to minimise the risk of diseases spreading. It is particularly useful to do this before eating or touching your face.
  • Practice social or physical distancing (1.5m).
  • Eat healthy, avoiding fatty foods or food or drink that contains a lot of sugar helps your immune system function properly.
  • Get plenty of rest. Sleeping is one of the most helpful things you can do for your health.
  • Exercise to relieve stress.
  • Spend time with friends and family going about your day to day. (If you need to self-isolate, we can still catch up with friends over the phone, video chat, or through social media to stay connected with others).

Together we can get through this tough period, but if at all you feel like you need some extra assistance during this time please contact us. Be kind to each other.

Written by Dr Joel Howell and Ben Pearcy

More information

If you would like to learn more or book an appointment with Dr Joel Howell or Ben Pearcy or another one of our experienced clinical psychologists, contact our friendly client team by calling 6143 4499 or email via our contact page.


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