Pandemic Panic? These 5 Tips Can Help You Regain Your Calm

Mar 3, 2020
Originally published on March 9, 2020 10:45 am

Anxiety thrives on uncertainty.

And, as the coronavirus spreads, our unanswered questions can make us feel vulnerable or fearful. "Will it come to my community" or "Am I at risk?'

"We've got national anxiety at the moment, a kind of shared stress, and we are all in a state of extreme uncertainty," says Catherine Belling, an associate professor at Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine, who studies the role of fear and anxiety in health care.

And here's a catch-22: The more you stress, the more vulnerable you can become to viruses, because stress can dampen your immune response.

But there are steps you can take to push back against the communal anxiety.

1. Plan ahead to feel more in control

Those of us prone to anxiety, like to be in control. So, if you take basic steps to prepare for the possibility of an outbreak in your community, you may feel a sense of relief. For instance, ask your employer about a work-from-home option. Be prepared for disruptions such as school closings. Have contingency plans for these disruptions. In addition, identify trusted sources of information you can turn to in the event of an outbreak.

"It's very important to say, well, no matter what happens, I've done the best that I can to be prepared," Belling says.

2. Unplug. Learn to be in the moment

It's important to be in the know. But you don't need to obsess over the news. "There's a point where, information gathering could become problematic," says Stewart Shankman, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies anxiety. He says it could have the unintended effect of driving up your fear.

If you're taking basic steps to protect yourself and stay informed, that's enough. "There's no way to reduce your risk to zero," Shankman says. You could spend all day and night reading headlines, news alerts or tweets but this "does not change your risk of getting coronavirus."

Once you unplug from the news for a bit, why not try a mindfulness app such as Headspace or Simply Being to help you let go of anticipatory anxiety. "We know from numerous studies that mindfulness is very effective at reducing stress and anxiety," Shankman says.

Need help getting started? In a recent episode of NPR's Life Kit, we walk through a 4-step tool, known as RAIN, with world-renowned mindfulness teacher Tara Brach.

3. Prioritize good sleep

While there's still a lot to learn about the new coronavirus, prior research has shown that well-rested people are better at fending off viruses.

For instance, when researchers sprayed a live common cold virus into the noses of a bunch of healthy people as part of a study, not everyone got sick. "Individuals who were sleeping the least were substantially more likely to develop a cold," study author Aric Prather, of the University of California, San Francisco told us when the study was published.

If you're having trouble sleeping, techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia can be helpful.

4. Exercise and eat well

This is always good advice, and it's worth emphasizing during times of uncertainty. There's lots of evidence that daily exercise can help promote feelings of well-being — and boost your immunity. For instance, this study found that physical activity protects against symptoms of anxiety. And getting your heart rate up each day, just by taking a walk, lowers the risk of many chronic conditions. So, keep walking your dog, that counts. Or maybe, get sweaty doing a group activity (Just don't stand too close to anyone who might be sick!)

What you eat can also help improve your outlook. A recent study found that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein helped reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety among a group of young adults.

"Eating sugar and ultra-processed food increases inflammation and suppresses immune function," says Mark Hyman, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. So, now may be a good time to lay off the Cheetos and sweets.

5. Wash your hands. Embrace the elbow bump.

When an infectious disease hits a community, there's only so much anyone can do. You can't sterilize your entire environment. But taking a few preventative actions will help reduce your risk and hopefully relieve your anxiety.

The coronavirus is transmitted from person to person via respiratory droplets. When an infected person sneezes or coughs, droplets containing virus particles are released. If you are standing close, you can become infected. "The respiratory droplets travel about three feet before they tend to settle out of the air, " says infectious disease expert Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Federal guidelines suggest six feet of separation, so keep your distance.

In addition, droplets can land on surfaces, such as elevator buttons, doorknobs, and shared work spaces. So, if you touch a contaminated surface, then touch your face, you can become infected. The virus can enter your body through your eyes, nose or mouth.

During an outbreak, proper hand-washing is your best defense against a virus. So, follow the evidence-based advice to wash for 20 seconds or more using soap and water. Or use hand sanitizers that contain at least 60% alcohol. In addition, you may want to forego hugging and hand-shakes, and embrace "low-touch" salutations such as the elbow bump.

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So did you find that you were speaking with people over the weekend and they were talking nervously about the coronavirus and that made you just more anxious? Well, if that happened to you, you are not alone. But there are ways to reduce your risk and reduce your anxiety level. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports that you can start by focusing on what you can control.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Nothing fuels anxiety like uncertainty, and there's plenty of that at the moment. Take these folks in my own community I met on my way to work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How can you know how at risk you are?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It makes me nervous because I am very confused.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How can you know if there's going to be an outbreak?

AUBREY: And when there aren't good answers to these questions, that feeling of vulnerability can set in. Here's Catherine Belling of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

CATHERINE BELLING: We've got a kind of national anxiety at the moment, and we are all in a state of extreme uncertainty right now.

AUBREY: But there are steps you can take to reduce your stress. Those of us who are prone to anxiety like to be in control, so basic planning and preparedness may help. If an outbreak happens in your community, know ahead of time the trusted sources of information, develop contingency plans if work is disrupted or schools are canceled.

BELLING: It's very important to say, well, no matter what happens, I've done the best that I can to be prepared and also the best that I can to prevent the worst-case scenario happening.

AUBREY: Other things that can protect you - and you've likely heard this many times now - wash your hands. And keep your hands off your face since touching your eyes, nose or mouth is how the virus can enter your body. And infectious disease expert Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women's Hospital says also be aware that when an infected person sneezes or coughs, the little respiratory droplets that can carry the virus can only travel so far.

DANIEL KURITZKES: Respiratory droplets travel about 1 meter, or 3 feet, before they tend to settle out of the air.

AUBREY: So there is a way to keep a safe distance. The CDC recommends 6 feet for safe measure, so following that advice may help you feel in control, too. Another helpful approach during times of uncertainty is simply to take good care of yourself. And psychologist Stewart Shankman of Northwestern University says one way to do this is to prioritize good sleep.

STEWART SHANKMAN: Numerous studies have shown that if you get a good night's sleep, if you reduce the stress in your life, that your immune system is strengthened significantly.

AUBREY: It turns out that not everyone who gets infected with a virus becomes sick. This has been documented in people who are sleep deprived and also shown in people who are stressed out. In one study where researchers exposed a whole bunch of people to a common cold virus and then tracked who got sick, they found that people who had reported higher levels of stress were about twice as likely to develop cold symptoms compared to people who were the least stressed. So Shankman says reducing anxiety could help you fight off a virus.

Now, it's hard to just tell people, don't be stressed. But here is an idea that could pay off - why not just unplug from the news?

SHANKMAN: There is a point where, you know, information gathering could become problematic.

AUBREY: Now, no one is suggesting that you stop listening to NPR. But if you are obsessing about the coronavirus and reading every tweet, every alert, every article, just disconnect for a while.

SHANKMAN: I guess my advice would be to gather some information. But at some point, continue to live your life.

AUBREY: It's good to stay informed, but information overload won't lower your risk of getting the virus.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISAAC AESILI'S "THE REAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.