Six ways to beat coronaphobia
Let’s break the rituals that trap us in cycles of anxiety
Co-authored with Dr Chris Merritt
Maria told me that she wasn’t always like this. ‘I never used to check for symptoms all the time,’ she said. ‘But now, as soon as I feel any little change in my body, I’m straight online, googling what it could be. And I always think it’s the worst.’ Maria’s worry about her health pushed her to compulsively search for reassurance that she wasn’t ill. But she never found it.
Instead, her anxiety grew to the point where she no longer wanted to go out. ‘If I opened the front door, my heart would be pounding,’ she explained. ‘If I just thought about going outside, I’d start sweating and feeling sick. I couldn’t even take the kids to school anymore.’ When I asked her what she was afraid of, her response was simple: ‘Catching something.’
When our safety system backfires
It might sound strange, but anxiety is our body’s way of keeping us safe. Or, at least, trying to keep us safe. For our ancestors, the physical effects of anxiety — sometimes known as ‘fight-or-flight’ — helped us escape dangers and survive. Today, though, that system is more often hijacked by things that don’t really threaten us, and we can find ourselves trapped in cycles of fear that are hard to break. The mechanism that’s supposed to protect us backfires — and ends up hurting us.
One common response to anxiety throughout human history, and across cultures, is to perform rituals. We’ve written about how new rituals are spreading today as people try to cope with coronaphobia, the excessive fear of having or getting Covid-19. That’s a normal, understandable response to the stress of a pandemic. But the problem is that most of these rituals are unhelpful, because they only make our anxiety worse and keep Coronaphobia going.
So how do you break out of that cycle?
Two choices: shut your life down or open it up
Many experts believe that, even with an effective vaccine, Covid-19 will be with us for a long time. That gives us two choices: 1) close down our lives and be ruled by unreasonable fear, or 2) learn to live with the virus, managing the risk and not allowing it to control us and damage our wellbeing in the process.
If you like the sound of option 2, then here are six practical ways to stop coronaphobia getting the better of you:
1. Accept uncertainty. Recognising that life is full of things we can’t control can be scary, but if we stop seeking certainty, we stop feeding anxiety about it. We can learn to let go of those worries and know that it’s ok to have some uncertainty.
2. Plan and move on. If you find yourself worrying about Covid-19, make a plan to control the things you can reasonably control (e.g. obtaining a mask to wear in situations where that’s recommended by official guidance), then move your focus on to something else that’s more enjoyable, positive or interesting. Don’t dwell on the ‘what ifs’.
3. Stop checking for symptoms of Coronavirus all the time. If you’ve genuinely been at risk of exposure and it’s important to know if you have Covid-19, get a test. Otherwise, ask yourself whether the problem is a) that you have Coronavirus, or b) that you worry about getting Coronavirus. A and B are different problems, and have different solutions.
4. Get the facts. Using reliable sources of information will help you make a realistic risk assessment. Think of it like a cost-benefit calculation: more activity might mean a slightly higher risk of Covid-19 exposure, but it could also be really useful, enjoyable and beneficial. Try not to ‘catastrophise’ — seeing the worst possible outcome from every situation.
5. Challenge yourself to stop avoiding doing things and begin to overcome fears around Covid-19. Take small steps out of your comfort zone — like getting on a bus to meet a friend. This may provoke anxiety, but if you don’t retreat when that happens, you’ll notice that your anxiety starts to reduce, and you can cope with the situation. Small steps become big steps.
6. Look for helpful rituals — like outdoor walks with friends, music groups or exercise classes — which provide social connection, activity, and an opportunity to be present. These things will reinforce and reward steps towards beating coronaphobia — giving you confidence to do more.
Go for it — and learn to live
By making the choice to open your life up, while taking appropriate and reasonable precautions to stop the spread of the virus and protect vulnerable people, you can break the cycle of anxiety that can take so much away from your life.
For Maria, it was the impact that her anxiety was having on others — her children — that prompted her to make a change and tackle the problem. If you notice yourself starting to fall into the worry and fear cycles of coronaphobia, you can do something about it. You can start to take back control.