Over the past few weeks, there has been wall to wall coverage of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), epidemic. In addition to the impact on the sick, the fear of the spread of this disease has caused world-wide alarm and has had a devastating impact on industry and the world’s stock markets and even on travel and sporting events and pubic gatherings . Concerns about limiting and containing the spread of the virus have already resulted in significant daily living disruptions with measures such as quarantines, cancelled conventions and air flights and even NBA games. Going forward , how to prevent a general public panic is uncertain.

Unfortunately, the problem is made worse and more confusing because government preparation and responses have been inadequate and statements from the White House and public health agencies about the virus or what to do are often contradictory. As a result, it is difficult for the public to know what is true and just who to believe.

As a therapist, I admit that my bias is to believe medical authorities over politicians. That said, here are some facts and tips based on a consensus from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC):

The COVID-19 virus is a flu-like illness marked by sudden fever, fatigue and shortness of breath. Unlike other flus, there is no vaccine to prevent it. It is highly contagious and can be spread by the most casual of contact. While serious, most who contract the virus will not exhibit serious symptoms but can, nonetheless, pass the virus on to others. Those most at risk are the elderly and others who have compromised immune systems. https://www.livescience.com/new-coronavirus-compare-with-flu.html

Fortunately, there is wide-spread agreement among health experts about what common sense measures should be employed to lesson the risk of contracting the disease: — Use disposable tissues. — Be mindful of what you touch. — Wash your hands frequently after touching things like door knobs, light switches, etc. — Avoid unnecessary public contact like shaking hands. — And MOST IMPORTANTLY — Don’t touch your face.

It is important to realize , despite all of the media attention, the virus is not the Black Plague. Although many will be infected by Coronavirus, most will not feel sick enough to seek medical attention. That said, the threat of the virus goes beyond a medical risk.  COVID-19 poses a severe psychological stress which create individual and even mass panic.  Even for those who don’t get sick, the emotional strain of non-stop media hype in addition to the disruptive precautionary measures will pose a serious menace that will, in some way, impact almost everyone sooner or later.  Although no one can control the spread or extent of the disease, there is a lot which individuals can do to control the anxiety produced by this difficult situation.

Tips for responding Rationally to the COVID-19

Don’t panic, Keep Perspective . The coronavirus is significant medical problem, most people will not be at serious medical risk. Those who are most vulnerable are older folks (those over 60) and those who have compromised immune systems.  To defend against exaggerated fears, employ self-talk and reality questions which closely examine the basis for one’s fears. Keep some basic statistics in mind. For example, example, according to the Washington Post, to date, approximately 3,000 people have died fromCOVID-19. By comparison, over 46,000 have died from the flu over the same time period.
— Identify Triggers for Touching your Face. Along with frequent hand washing, not touching one’s face is by far one of the best ways to prevent the spread of cold , flu and Coronaviruses. It is also one of the most difficult to do. Touching one’s face is something that everyone does, on an average about 24 times an hour. To successfully block this natural impulse, several steps much be practiced. First , one must become intentional about it and make it a conscious goal.  2) One must reflect and identify specific triggers such as itch or nervousness which prompt face touching. 3) Finally , with practice, one must develop some other physical gesture to replace the behavior that is to be eliminated. For example, squeezing a stress ball or chewing on a tooth pick .
— Practice Stress Management and Anxiety Lowering Techniques. Fears concerning the Coronavirus are just like any other anxiety and thus can be reduced by common anxiety lowering techniques such as Journaling, meditation, yoga ,intentional breathing , progressive relaxation and physical/aerobic exercises. The key, as with all stress management, is to learn how to self-monitor one’s own anxiety level so that one will become aware before tension and worry levels get out of hand.
— Limit Exposure to Media Reports. Limiting exposure to news reports about COVID-19 is a very important factor in controlling anxiety levels while the threat remains. Too many reports, especially those which have nothing positive to offer, can lead to increased worry and even panic.

While the news is scary at times and the ultimate impact of the new virus  is not fully known, it is important to remember that, as before, we will survive this assault and that we will eventually return to our normal lives . In the mean time, pay attention and do your best to follow health experts’ recommendations. Likewise, don’t let your fearful emotions take control of your life. If things become to difficult, see a therapist who can help you cope more successfully.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC 3/07/2020

Image:  public domain.