The spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. is creating a new age of anxiety, and it’s no surprise.
With airports filled with travelers in masks, stores selling out of disinfectant and public health officials urging Americans to prepare for the bug to disrupt daily life, the national level of worry seems to be off the charts.
Mental health experts emphasized it’s normal, and potentially even helpful, to feel anxious at this time.
“Anxiety, when it’s at the right level, encourages us to take positive action,” Dr. Kelli Harding, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, told TODAY.
“It’s OK to have that moment of panic because, in a way, if you can move beyond that, you can start making adequate precautions.”
The problem comes when people start stewing in their fear.
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The anxiety is being driven by collective uncertainty over what will happen, even though evidence so far shows the new virus causes mild symptoms in most cases, said Joshua Klapow, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of public health at The University of Alabama at Birmingham.
People may experience everything from feeling nervous as they watch the news, to experiencing panic when they’re near somebody who coughs or sneezes, he noted. It doesn’t matter if the person with sniffles is someone affected by allergy season.
NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel called it "coughobia."
“People are now quick to jump to a worst-case scenario. That creates ongoing distress,” Klapow said. “Anxiety is sticky. We tend to make illogical leaps when we’re nervous.”
Ironically, feeling stressed like this not only feels bad, but increases the risk for becoming ill.
When a person’s biological alarm system is over-activated, it floods the body with cortisol — a stress hormone that suppresses the immune system, said Sherry Benton, a licensed psychologist in Tampa, Florida, and founder of TAO Connect, which provides online mental health therapy.
“What’s dangerous is if your anxiety is really exaggerated,” Benton said. “What’s happening to you emotionally? Are you walking around terrified that this is coming, or are you able to prepare and then get on with your life?”
The best treatment for anxiety is often positive action, Harding noted.
Here are some simple steps you can take right now to feel better:
1. Take a media break
Don’t immerse yourself in news about the coronavirus 24/7. “You have to stop scouring social media and the internet for the latest twists and turns,” Klapow advised. Stay up to date using trusted sources, like the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then step away.
2. Wash your hands frequently
It’s something that will actually lower your risk of getting sick. Learn how to do it properly: for a full 20 seconds using warm water and soap. “It’s quite incredible how helpful that is,” Harding noted.
3. Practice good self-care
Get plenty of nutrients by eating fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly and get enough sleep. “We know that sleep has a direct impact on the immune system. So you can take all the vitamin C you want, but if you’re sleep deprived, your immune system is compromised,” Klapow noted.
“Although those things seem very benign — they don’t seem as potent as putting on a face mask — they are things all of us can do to stay as healthy and as infection-free as possible.”
4. Take sensible steps to prepare
There's definitely reason to take precaution, so being adequately prepared will provide peace of mind. Ready.gov, the government's website, has concrete tips, like storing a two-week supply of water and food.
5. Go for a walk outside
Time spent in nature is soothing for the mind and body. Sunlight may lower your blood pressure, research has found. “If you can, get a little sunshine during your day. Take a stroll. Take a deep breath,” Harding suggested.
6. Acknowledge your anxiety
It's generally unhelpful to tell a highly-anxious person to just stop feeling anxious, Harding said. Instead — whether it's coronavirus or another panic-provoking situation — it's useful to just acknowledge the anxiety and work through it. "Name it to tame it" is a mantra in mental health for big emotions, she noted.
7. Write down your worries
Seeing the words on paper or on a screen may stop you from spinning yourself into a frenzy.
“What are you catastrophizing? Write down the things you find yourself thinking and reflect on them. Challenge your own thinking to get it more in balance and reasonable,” Benton said.
8. Send a little love to people who you care about
Put together a text message chain or email chain with family on it — that way you can have it set up before it feels like an emergency situation and easily communicate with your loved ones. “We’re definitely not in this alone,” Harding said.
This story first appeared on TODAY.com. More from TODAY: