Coronavirus anxiety: Why the outbreak feeds worries and five simple ways to reduce coronavirus anxiety

March 9, 2020
coronavirus is causing anxiety for many - how to handle it
Anxiety over coronavirus is gripping many people. Learn tips for handling it. Photo: Getty Images.

Coronavirus anxiety has spurred people to hoard everything from toilet paper to canned tuna. One family in Australia accidentally ordered 48 boxes of toilet paper instead of 48 rolls and ended up with a 12-year supply.

Hand sanitizer has been sold out for weeks, spurring nervous neighbors to share tips on Nextdoor about how to make their own sanitizer, only to discover on fruitless trips to the pharmacy that the key ingredient – alcohol – is also sold out.

Add worries about the tanking stock market to spookily empty store shelves and we are witnessing a full-blown case of coronavirus anxiety.

What is causing coronavirus anxiety?

Dr. Justin Ross
Psychologist Justin Ross said the coronavirus outbreak is causing a great deal of anxiety because there’s so much uncertainty. Photo courtesy of Justin Ross.

Psychologist Justin Ross said it’s no surprise that mass anxiety and panicky behavior are spreading. Ross, who has a doctorate in psychology and practices at the UCHealth Integrative Medicine Center in Stapleton, said anxiety is a natural response now because the coronavirus outbreak is feeding the three key ingredients that cause anxiety:

  1. Unpredictability: when we don’t have a clear sense of what may happen next.
  2. Lack of control: when we believe we do not have direct control for managing issues appropriately.
  3. Threats to people or things we value.

Ross said anxiety can be a healthy response during times of stress.

“In many ways anxiety serves an adaptive, healthy response when something we value dearly is threatened or perceived to be threatened,” Ross said. “The problem is when the anxiety response runs amok and spins out of control. That’s when it can cause a lot of problems for people.”

Ross said it’s clear that anxiety about the coronavirus outbreak is causing problems for some.

“The current level of uncertainty and a felt sense of lacking control with this virus has led to us buy things unnecessarily or excessively checking the news and social media. We want to feel like we have the ability to control our lives. We want information and we want products that align with our vision for safety and control,” he said.

How to tame coronavirus anxiety?

While it’s not very helpful during legitimate times of stress to give people pat responses like: “calm down,” “don’t panic,” or “don’t worry,” Ross said there are simple steps that can help tame coronavirus anxiety.

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Here are his recommendations:

1. Limit your exposure to news and social media.

Schedule times to view updates. Plan to check your news sources or social media feeds just twice a day. Make those checks brief. Then otherwise, avoid updates that could be feeding your coronavirus anxiety.

Unless you are running a hospital or a news outlet, you don’t need to be getting constant updates about the coronavirus outbreak.

“Anxiety can build from media exposure,” Ross said. “Limit your consumption. Pick one or two trusted sources that you are going to rely on and screen out all the others. Schedule two times a day that you are going to check the news and consume media for no more than five minutes each time. That’s long enough to scan the latest information. But, any longer than that is going to spiral your anxiety.”

Ross strongly recommends limiting exposure to social media since a friend’s post —which may not even be accurate — can trigger worries for you. Anxiety essentially can be contagious. Reduce the contagion by skipping the updates.

2. Focus on controlling what you can control.

“We feel anxiety when we are trying to control the things that are inherently outside our control,” Ross said.

Of course, the average person cannot control how widely the coronavirus outbreak will spread. We can’t control if our child’s school will close or if an important work conference will get canceled or if our 401K retirement savings shrinks dramatically.

So, Ross advises people to instead focus on the simple powers we do have.

“We can wash our hands. We can take precautions,” he said. “We can give ourselves the best chance of staying healthy.

Thorough hand washing is the No. 1 way people can stay healthy and avoid spreading the coronavirus. And, we can take reasonable precautions, like staying home from school or work when we are sick, not dipping our hands in community candy or food bowls, and skipping big group functions now if we have underlying health issues or our immune systems are compromised.

3. Get plenty of rest.

Multiple studies have shown that a good night’s sleep can boost your immune system and prevent you from getting sick. Quality of sleep for enough hours a night also helps with mood and can reduce anxiety. If you are not sleeping well, seek help from your primary care provider or a sleep expert. There are some common and treatable causes for poor sleep, like sleep apnea. Ask your primary care provider or a sleep specialist for help.

4. Breathe.

Engage in very simple, 5-minute deep breathing sessions at least three times a day.

“Breathing helps us manage the anxiety response on a physical, physiological and mental level,” Ross said.

The physical level is how the body reacts physically. The physiological response centers on the nervous system. And of course, our mental responses relate to how our brain is responding to stress.

Breathing deeply has the remarkable power to affect people on all three levels.

“One minute of deep breathing helps slow down the sympathetic nervous system — the fight or flight response associated with anxiety. Breathing also helps turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us restore balance and can provide a sense of calm and focus” Ross said.

The parasympathetic nervous system slows the heart rate and increases intestinal and glandular activities. It’s sometimes called the “rest and digest” system.

to cope with coronavirus anxiety, Justin Ross goes running
Exercise and spending time outdoors can be great ways to reduce stress. For Justin Ross, running is a great escape from stress and anxiety. He loves running marathons. Photo courtesy of Justin Ross.

Ross encourages those already dealing with anxiety and everyone who wants to avoid it, to schedule three sessions a day of slow, deep, deliberate breathing for about three to five minutes during each session.

You don’t need any special equipment, but if an app helps, he recommends the free version of an app called Insight Timer.

Unless you are using your phone to help you breathe deeply, be sure to set it aside during your relaxation sessions.

5. Enjoy the outdoors and get exercise.

Coloradans are lucky that we live in a sunny climate where getting outdoors is easy and quickly can lead us to beautiful places. Take time to go for a walk or a run. Or find a view of some trees or mountains and enjoy a session of deep breathing outdoors.

Ross loves to run. He does marathons and, no matter how busy he is with work and family, he carves out time to run.

“People say, ‘I don’t have time,’” Ross said. “But if you make it a priority, it will happen. Making time to exercise and meditate and putting it in your schedule is going to make a difference.”

Ross often runs with friends and says that both the physical activity and the social connections are really helpful.

Find activities that soothe your soul and put coronavirus and other stressors out of your mind, at least temporarily.

“Exercise and yoga are great. Get out in the fresh air and the sunlight,” Ross said. “As much as possible, go about your normal life.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.