Anxiety Related to Pandemic Illnesses

The recent COVID-19 outbreak may lead to heightened stress and anxiety for some people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fear associated with illnesses like COVID-19 can cause people to become overwhelmed with stress and strong emotions. For those who have a mental illness like an anxiety disorder, symptoms may become worse during the COVID-19 outbreak. While this may be the case, there are also ways to stay mentally well in the midst of an outbreak.

What Causes Stress During an Outbreak?

In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, people may become stressed for several reasons. For example, the CDC explains that they may be worried about their own health or the health of people they love. Those who personally have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to complications may experience heightened stress. Anxiety levels during an outbreak can also be higher for people whose family members or close friends have a health problem that makes them more susceptible to the effects of COVID-19.

The outbreak of disease also brings added stressors, such as worries about work and finances. Some people may be without work during the outbreak and may worry about earning enough money to pay bills. For example, some states have closed gyms, hair salons, and daycare centers, leaving people who work in these settings without an income. People in other industries may continue to work, but they may struggle to find childcare with daycare centers being closed, which creates additional stress. Still others are faced with the task of working remotely, which can make their jobs more difficult.

Another source of stress and anxiety throughout the COVID-19 outbreak is the fact that some people may be forced to stay at home and quarantine. This can lead to concerns about losing connection with the outside world, as well as fears of running out of necessities, such as food, water, cleaning supplies, and toiletries. This fear has certainly been apparent in recent weeks, with Time reporting that stores like Costco were running out of toilet paper after panicked Americans bought excessive quantities of it in light of the COVID-19 scare.

During uncertain times, people simply want to be able to meet their basic needs, and having a stock of toilet paper and other necessities on hand provides a feeling of relief. As a psychologist interviewing with Time has explained, having toilet paper is comforting, because it meets a basic need that we all have. She further explained that people have a social need to be seen as clean, which toilet paper also meets. While the COVID-19 outbreak can lead to fear and uncertainty, having toilet paper and needed supplies can relieve some of the anxiety we have about our ability to continue to meet basic needs for survival.  

What Does the Research Say?

Experts like psychologists and those working for the CDC have described anxiety and compensatory behaviors that occur during pandemics like the coronavirus outbreak, and researchers have conducted studies to learn more about the anxiety-related behaviors that come along with these outbreaks. For example, scientists conducting research for a 2012 edition of Cognitive Therapy and Research found that during the H1N1 outbreak, anxiety was common, and it was based upon factors such as health-related anxiety, disgust, and fears of contamination. The researchers explained that health anxiety comes from people overestimating both the likelihood of becoming sick and the severity of consequences from becoming ill. Linking this to the current COVID-19 outbreak, people may become anxious and overbuy toilet paper and other necessities because they are certain they will become ill or be confined to their homes.

A 2014 study in the British Journal of Health Psychology, which also analyzed anxiety during the H1N1 pandemic, found that people who were intolerant of uncertainty were more likely to be anxious during the disease outbreak. The study also found that people who were unable to manage uncertainty were more likely to become emotional, instead of using problem-focused coping strategies. These findings are also applicable to the current COVID-19 outbreak, as there is uncertainty surrounding this illness, which can lead to high anxiety among some people.

How to Stay Mentally Grounded

Both researchers and experts have warned that anxiety and strong emotions are common during outbreaks like COVID-19 pandemic, but there are ways to cope effectively and stay mentally grounded. As the study in the British Journal of Health Psychology found, people may respond emotionally instead of using problem-focused strategies. Instead of succumbing to fears, you can stay grounded by focusing on problem-solving. For example, the CDC recommends taking precautions such as staying home when sick, washing hands often, and refraining from touching your eyes and mouth when your hands are unclean. Using these problem-focused strategies can reduce the spread of disease and relieve some anxiety.

It is also helpful to understand the true risks associated with coronavirus. For example, the CDC reports that most people are at a low risk of becoming seriously sick from the COVID-19 outbreak. Older adults and those with health problems like lung disease or diabetes are at heightened risk, but others are unlikely to become significantly sick. It is also helpful to know that someone who has been previously quarantined but has since been released does not put others at risk of getting the infection. Being aware of these and other facts can quell some of the fears surrounding COVID-19.

The CDC provides up-to-date information about the outbreak, and following the facts on its website can be helpful for coping with anxiety. In addition the strategies discussed previously, the CDC also recommends the following methods of staying mentally grounded:

  • Taking a break from the news- Constant reports of new cases and deaths from COVID-19 can make anxiety worse. It may be helpful to turn off the TV, or to watch a movie or show that doesn’t discuss the outbreak.
  • Practice self-care: Take care of yourself with proper nutrition, exercise, and adequate sleep as much as possible.It may not be feasible to go to the gym or attend an exercise class during the outbreak, but you can do workout videos from home, take a walk or jog around the block, or do simple exercises, such as jumping jacks, squats, and push-ups. Getting your heartrate up can be an excellent source of stress relief.
  • Reach out to others- Chances are that friends and family members are also having some fears during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reach out by phone and offer support to each other.
  • Take care of mental health needs- If you have an existing condition like generalized anxiety disorder or major depression, you might find that symptoms are worse during these uncertain times. Be sure to continue to take your medication if applicable, and be aware of your symptoms. If you are unable to reach out for help in-person, you can call your provider or consider online therapy services.

While anxiety is common during pandemic situations like the COVID-19 outbreak, there are ways to cope. It may be comforting to know that you are not the only one struggling, and there are resources available to assist you. If you find that your mental health is deteriorating or you are experiencing significant stress-related problems, like worsening physical health, use of drugs and alcohol, difficulty sleeping, or changes in eating habits, it is important to reach out for help for your safety and wellbeing.  The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides resources, including a distress helpline. If you are struggling, do not hesitate to seek support today.

Sources:

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/managing-stress-anxiety.html
  2. https://time.com/5803273/hoarding-toilet-paper/
  3. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10608-011-9353-3
  4. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bjhp.12058?casa_token=GdzC9qzz_soAAAAA%3A51Atkz5J3g4z7qh4AJyt7iAIZ4_KH_R9i_q5-nKEPo31vXdUravjC2d9hT0gNiKSS54GMXQhaMM06n8
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/share-facts.html

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