Infectious disease outbreaks, like the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, can be scary and can affect our mental health – especially when the media coverage highlights the outbreak as a unique threat, rather than one of many, causing fear to spread on a societal level.
On an individual level, outbreaks may exacerbate anxiety and psychosis-like symptoms as well as lead to non-specific mental issues (e.g. mood problems, sleep issues, phobia-like behaviors, panic-like symptoms).
While it is important to stay informed, there are many things we can do to support and manage our wellbeing during such times.
DO NOT LET YOUR WORRY ABOUT THIS VIRUS CONTROL YOUR LIFE
Avoid the temptation to learn everything you possibly can about the coronavirus. While more information might seem like the best defense against the illness, it’s far more likely to ramp up your panic. “If you don’t need to stay on top of this for your job or your academic work, don’t,” says bioethicist Kelly Hills.
Therapist Jenn Brandel adds, “we have to regulate and make choices about what we are exposing ourselves to;” noting that managing anxiety around outbreaks requires us to focus on facts rather than emotions. Hills recommends limiting your coronavirus news consumption to once a day, and only getting that news from a trusted, verified source. If friends and family are overloading you with updates, know that it’s okay to mute them on social media or ask them not to message you with anything related to the crisis.
BE MINDFUL OF YOUR ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT OTHERS
Someone who has a cough, or a fever does not necessarily have COVID-19. Self-awareness is important in not stigmatizing others in our community.
Don’t judge people and avoid jumping to conclusions about who is responsible for the spread of the disease. Coronavirus can affect anyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity or sex.
SET A BASIC SAFETY REGIMEN AND AVOID TEMPTATION TO ADD TO IT
As you’ve likely heard, regular handwashing is one of the most essential components of coronavirus prevention. But, washing your hands repeatedly, for far more than necessary, is moving out of disease prevention territory and into compulsion territory.
“If you are washing your hands so much that they are raw or chafed, you are washing your hands too much,” says Hills. Washing your hands, she points out, isn’t about preventing an infection from seeping in through your skin; it’s about removing pathogens before you pass them on to points of entry like your eyes, nose, and mouth. If your handwashing leads your skin to crack and bleed, you’ve created a new entry point for the virus. (If you or a loved one are at elevated risk due to a comorbidity, Hills notes you can also wipe down light switches, phones, countertops, and other frequently touched surfaces with a Clorox wipe once a day — but once a day should be sufficient, and the entire process should only take a few minutes.)
TRY TO ANTICIPATE DISTRESS
It’s normal to feel vulnerable, overwhelmed, or agitated while reading news about the outbreak, especially if you have experienced trauma or a mental health problem in the past, or if you have a long-term physical health condition that makes you more vulnerable to the effects of coronavirus. It’s important to acknowledge these feelings and remind each other to look after our physical and mental health. We should also be aware of and avoid increasing habits that may not be helpful in the long term, like smoking and drinking.
Try and reassure people you know who may be worried (in a respectful and patient manner) and check in with people who you know are living alone.
TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN
During times of stress and crisis, children are more likely to seek attachment and be demanding on their parents. Families and caregivers of children and young people should discuss news of the virus with those in their care in an open and honest way. Try to relate the facts without causing alarm, and in a way that is appropriate for their age and temperament. Minimize the negative impact the crisis could have on them by listening to any questions they may have and letting them know that they are safe and that it’s normal to feel concerned.
TRY TO REMAIN CONNECTED
At times of stress, we work better in company and with support. If you’re feeling extreme distress over current events, remember that you don’t have to go through this alone. Therapy can be an important part of managing your mental health during a crisis. If therapy isn’t an option for you, a trusted source, like a doctor, family or friend, who can help you analyze what is a rational concern or safety measure, and what is an anxious overreaction, is another great option.
As social distancing becomes more widespread, with more of us finding ourselves having to work from home or stay in to care for children who can’t go to school, it’s good to plan some strategies for staying in touch with your support system remotely. Group chats and video chat can be a great way to feel connected to friends and family, but it’s also a good idea to check if your therapist is available to do sessions remotely over video chat or phone.
Worried about the potential of self-quarantine?
The idea of self-isolation can be a daunting prospect and may amp up feelings of anxiety or depression. If you are placed in quarantine, it may help to try and see it as a different period of time in your life – not necessarily a bad one. Create a daily routine that prioritizes looking after yourself. Stay on top of your general fitness and wellness regimen, as it’s even more important during a stressful time like this. Make sure you’re sleeping enough, eating a balanced diet, and getting enough exercise to get your heart racing (from activity rather than anxiety). Try reading more or practicing new relaxation techniques.
Try to rest and view this as a new experience that might have its benefits.
Interested in more mental health tips, see the WHO’s suggestions for handling the mental health toll: https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/mental-health-considerations.pdf?sfvrsn=6d3578af_2
- Nidal Moukaddam, MD, PhD and Asim Shah, MD. Psychiatrists Beware! The Impact of COVID-19 and Pandemics on Mental Health. Psychiatric Times. 2020.
- Lux Alptraum. I have OCD. Here’s how I’m dealing with coronavirus fears. Vox. 2020.
- Mental Health Foundation. Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak. Mentalhealthfoundation.org. 2020.
- University Health Services. Managing Fears and Anxiety around Coronavirus. berkeley.edu/coronavirus. 2020.
- Hannah Miller. WHO gives advice on handling mental health toll from the coronavirus. CNBC. 2020.
- Beyond Blue Support Service. Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak. beyondblue.org.au. 2020