Coping with coronavirus anxiety

A guide for the worried.

The related MERS-CoV. Photo by CDC on Unsplash.

I’m not sure if you paid attention to your panicked family and friends, or watched a bit of news, but basically the plague is upon us. There’s this new virus, from Wuhan, and it’s spreading quick. It kills a fairly high percentage of those it infects, at least when compared to the flu. The flu kills somewhere around 2 out of every 100,000 it infects. This new coronavirus, however, seems like it may kill around 2 out of every 100 infected.

That’s a really big difference. The virus also happens to be very contagious, which is why many governments are becoming very concerned (leading to many travel bans, which at least here in the USA is the first travel ban in recent memory that I can understand). It’s hard to say, and I am no expert, but many health authorities seem to think it could very well become a pandemic and, at the very least, cause a lot more suffering and death.

So why am I writing this? I work in agriculture, not epidemiology. This isn’t really in my wheelhouse. But anxiety is. I’ve been suffering from OCD and health-related anxiety for at least 15 years. It’s bad enough that, when not medicated, my worries and compulsions could take up hours of my day, every day.

So for me, this new coronavirus is more than a physical threat. It has the potential to be devastating for my mental health, especially if it ever reached my sleepy little Oregon town, and as such represents a proving ground for my anxiety management strategies.

I’m definitely not alone, however, which isn’t really as comforting as it sounds.

It was kind of the like a snap of the fingers. One day, people here were complaining about the impeachment (either that it wasn’t happening fast enough, or that it was happening at all; in Oregon you get all sorts) and the next day, it was nothing but worry about coronavirus.

A new subreddit of nearly 50,000 subscribers appeared overnight, and then not long after there was another one with just as many people. The reason why I do not want to link to these forums becomes pretty obvious upon browsing them — they are filled to the brim with misinformation and speculation of the worst kind.

Anxious people, many mentally ill like me, are panicking, coming together online, and creating communities fueled by spiraling anxieties unfettered by fact or logic. It’s the very definition of an echo chamber. If thousands of people are saying something, it must be true, right?

Wrong! I know how this works because I have done the same thing, both with others and in the confines of my own mind, hundreds of times. In this case, the anxiety is coronavirus. It is only natural that people become anxious in regards to a new disease. They will have questions that researchers and health authorities will not have answers for, and as such they will turn to the internet for answers. They will ask questions that unqualified others will answer. It becomes a bit of a guessing game, though, answering questions nobody knows the answer to. Since nobody knows the answer, people will start to speculate.

Speculation is just that, speculation. If you go back in archives you can find people saying this virus has a 60% death rate, which is absolutely false. What is more disturbing, however, is that there are people who seem to be listening to them and becoming deeply unsettled. They then take these ideas, obsess over them, and ‘infect’ more knowledge-hungry people with them. When there is a lack of knowledge, speculation and obsession run wild. The more people that share in the obsession, the more powerful it becomes.

The news doesn’t help. Profit-driven media companies will latch on to a good headline and they often do not care about the ramifications of posting alarmist content to the internet for all to see. Troubling headlines induce both fear and clicks, which is exactly what the media wants. This content just reinforces the obsessions of the masses of anxious people, as people tend to treat the news as a source of truth (when in reality it is anything but truthful).

It’s easy to see how this can be unsettling for those with health anxiety like myself. It’s everywhere you turn on the internet and that anxiety is bleeding over into real life. People everywhere are talking about it. A local thrift store started selling masks for a buck each. Asians, in a shocking display of xenophobia, are not being allowed into businesses in some parts of Europe.

Being immersed in this environment is really not healthy for somebody who already has a lot of anxiety around disease and health issues. Normal people are panicking, often way out of proportion to the threat, which gives people like myself reinforcement that our anxieties and false beliefs are true. It’s a nightmare for someone with OCD, who cannot stop their mind from obsessing over it and thus have a very difficult time stopping compulsive behavior regarding their obsessions.

If you are especially vulnerable, like myself, or simply prone to anxiety there are a few simple steps you can take to protect your mental well-being.

  1. Do not use news aggregators, get your news from search engines or social media, and limit your overall news intake. This is the absolute best way to avoid fearmongering, alarmism, and speculation. When you consume media, be choosy. Using the news tab of search engines or media aggregators gives you little control of the media you consume. It’s very easy to view biased or inaccurate content and not realize it. Choose news sources you really trust, and limit your news consumption drastically. It does you no good to check the news 5 times a day when there is very little you can do about the situation.
  2. Block or hide social media feeds that talk a lot about coronavirus or post fake news regarding it. Facebook, reddit, and related sites are full of all kinds of crazy junk. Do not listen to anything you read on these sites, no matter who posts it. They are echo-chambers with a history of promoting fake news and fostering misinformation. Avoid parts of these sites where you suspect this happens or avoid them altogether. Hide the feeds of friends who post this sort of content (they won’t know the difference).
  3. Shut down misinformation when you see it. We don’t have to let our internet fill up with crap. If you see something you know to be false, leave a comment if you feel comfortable. Provide a legitimate source, like the CDC or a scientific publication. The more we fight misinformation, the less our fellow human will give in to baseless panic.
  4. Prepare. This might sound contrary to what I have been saying, but prepare for hard times. Buy a big bag of rice, a big bag of beans, and a few gallons of bleach. Plant a garden. Build a chicken coop. You will sleep easier knowing that you can support yourself in times of hardship, no matter what the cause.

It’s hard to know what to do in times like these, when it seems like the individual has no power. Just remember that you do have power in your own life, to change what is around you, and that panic serves nobody aside from a few big corporations that profit off of selling fear. It pays to be cautious, but don’t let yourself get swept into the wind.

A writer living in the PNW who just wants to tend to his garden.

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