Medical doctor from Airlangga University
Are you having anxieties due to the COVID-19 pandemic? (Shutterstock/woocat)
The coronavirus pandemic has caused another problem: an anxiety pandemic.
As the world is seemingly in chaos, with news outlets reporting about the pandemic non-stop and doctors spreading information on how to stay safe and protect each other, it can be quite overwhelming for anyone to navigate these difficult times. Coupled with our government’s call for social distancing, effectively eliminating any physical social contact, all of this is enough to make any person go through psychological hardship.
If you are suddenly feeling shortness of breath, chest pain, dryness in the throat or heart palpitations, especially when thinking or reading news about the coronavirus, then you might be experiencing an anxiety attack. The symptoms might increase the more you worry about the coronavirus and disappear altogether when you’re distracted. This is all a sign of a classic anxiety attack.
Don’t worry, you are not alone.
People have been reporting instances of coronavirus anxiety. Even in the clinic where I worked as a medical doctor, a lot of people are coming in with symptoms of shortness of breath, dry throat and cough. When asked if they have a fever or history of traveling, which is a telltale criterion necessary to diagnose the coronavirus for us physicians, they all said no. When prodded further, these people would go on to describe that their feelings are exacerbated by reading the news.
“It is unlikely that you have the coronavirus. Instead, you might be experiencing an anxiety attack,” I said to these patients.
According to psychologists, coronavirus anxiety is increasing in number of cases. Some groups of people are especially vulnerable: people with preexisting anxiety disorders, tendencies toward panic and people with a history of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Baruch Fischhoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and expert on public perception of risk, explained why we might be worrying more about new and unknown risks such as the coronavirus than familiar ones.
The coronavirus comes from a group of viruses that includes the famous MERS CoV and SARS CoV, which were reported as an outbreak in 2012 and 2003, respectively. According to data, we know that the coronavirus outbreak is not as deadly as the SARS epidemic, which killed 10 percent of the 8,093 confirmed cases. The coronavirus is even far less deadly than the SARS epidemic, which killed 34 percent of roughly 2,500 confirmed cases.
But this is not necessarily public knowledge. People are still more afraid of the coronavirus.
The reason for this, according to Dr. Fischhoff, might be simply because the number of cases and death tolls of the coronavirus continues to rise every day. “With the coronavirus, we don’t know where it’s going,” he said in a podcast interview about coronavirus anxiety with the American Psychological Association.
According to Paul Slovic, PhD, a researcher in the field of risk and decision-making at the University of Oregon, another plausible explanation for the rise in coronavirus anxiety might be simply because people use emotions, instead of logical analysis, to evaluate risks. Instead of seeing the data, people make assumptions based on the worst and use a cognitive distortion tactic called catastrophizing, which is an irrational thought where we make something out to be far worse than it actually is.
How to handle coronavirus anxiety
Again, panic and anxiety is not a useful response toward the coronavirus pandemic. However, it might be hard to not feel that way when the news and even your own family are sharing information about coronavirus constantly.
1. Limit your exposure to media coverage on the coronavirus.
This means taking a break from places where fake information or hoaxes are thriving, such as Facebook, WhatsApp groups or other types of social media without credibility. Instead, stick to two or three trusted sources of information such as the WHO or the CDC.
2. Gather only necessary information to take precautions and prepare your plans to protect yourself and your family.
Again, said information must be obtained from trusted sources, such as the WHO, the CDC or your local government agency.
In addition, no need to panic-buy or over-buy. Unless you are a medical officer, then you don’t need any protective hazmat suits, boots or face shields. Surgical masks and hand sanitizers are enough as precautions.
3. Stay in contact with your friends, families and loved ones.
Social distancing can worsen preexisting anxiousness. Give your friends or family a text or a call. Talk to the people you trust about your feelings.
4. If you are staying at home, work to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
This includes proper diet, sleep and physical exercise. Stick to a daily routine and avoid indulging in idleness like staying in bed all day or locking yourself up in your room.
5. Don’t use smoking, alcohol or other drugs to deal with your emotions.
Instead, make plans to seek professional help from a mental counselor if your anxiety still persists.
As the coronavirus pandemic is rampant, the human mind has been another one of its casualties. Coronavirus anxiety is another aspect of the coronavirus pandemic that is overlooked. But actually, there’s no need to panic.
If you still find yourself suffering from coronavirus anxiety after applying the aforementioned steps, find a trusted mental health counselor to talk about your worries. (kes)
Maria Cellina Wijaya is a medical doctor from Airlangga University with an interest in psychology. She is currently enrolled in a government-mandated one-year internship for physicians in Mojokerto, East Java.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.