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As cases of COVID-19 proliferate across the globe, there’s an outbreak of fear alongside the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the efforts of city leaders to quell public concern over the growing rate of positive cases in San Antonio and nationwide, panic and anxiety continue. And the negative ripple effects seem unending.
Grocery stores and pharmacies continue to grapple with an onslaught of customers rushing in, to stock up on everything from antibacterial wipes to milk and toilet paper.
Why toilet paper? The answer is simple, said James Bray, a licensed psychologist and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“The bottom line is that people want to feel like they can survive, and to survive means you have enough food and drink,” Bray said. “We all need to eat, drink, and poop – so that’s part of what their hoarding behavior is about – but really people are just kicking into survival mode thinking they are not going to have any. So they look for any clear action they can take.”
The spread of the new virus is not just a public health crisis, it’s a global event pervading nearly every aspect of people’s lives, causing them to worry not only about getting sick themselves, but about the health of older loved ones, what to do with their out-of-school kids, and how to make it by with less income or shrinking 401(k)s.
While fear of the unknown is inevitable for most people, Bray said, some of the public anxiety exhibited in the past weeks has been disproportionate to the risk of COVID-19 as we understand it, and there are practical steps a person can take to minimize worry.
One thing people can do, Bray said, is to keep in mind that “the actual number of people who are sick and who have died are relatively small.”
There have been just over 15,000 cases of coronavirus diagnosed in the U.S., which have resulted in more than 200 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In San Antonio, 29 positive cases of coronavirus – and no deaths – have been reported to the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.
“If you find yourself worrying about it too much, you can do a reality check and remind yourself of the actual risk versus other infectious diseases that are around us as well,” Bray said, pointing to the death rate for people who contract influenza. “In both cases, there are reasonable actions people can take to protect themselves, and people simply need to ask themselves, ‘Am I doing everything I can to protect myself and prevent the virus from spreading?’”
Bray said that reality check can be extended to using facts to reassure yourself when questions arise about how you can get through the looming threats the virus poses.
Worried about your income and how to sustain your livelihood? Focus on making appropriate adjustments in spending, Bray said, and keep in mind that the “federal government is going to try to make funds available to help people in this situation.”
If you are afraid of contracting the virus, remember that while “humans are vulnerable to illness,” you can lower your probability of contracting the virus by washing your hands and practicing social distancing.
Local psychologist Aimee Keith who counsels people with mood, anxiety, and eating disorders. Keith said that while there are things a person can do to be proactive in addressing their concerns, “it’s really difficult to know what is the appropriate level of panic at this point in time.”
“It’s not about reasonable or unreasonable. Where we kind of get stuck is on how probable something is, so we tend to have a bias toward preparing for the worst-case scenario,” Keith said, noting this is even more prominent in people with existing anxiety and panic disorders. “Really for anyone going through this experience, it’s hard to know what is reasonable, or normal versus not normal.”
For anyone worried their behavior might be crossing into abnormal territory, Keith says to “rely on CDC recommendations and not go beyond that.”
For example, the CDC recommends washing your hands or using hand sanitizer “often,” especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
“They aren’t saying wash your hands 23 times a day and use gloves for everything you touch,” Keith said.
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Last week the World Health Organization released a list of mental health considerations for people to keep in mind as the crisis continues to unfold, including limiting the amount of news you consume and being careful where you are finding that information, taking breaks from social media when anxiety or fear becomes overwhelming, and finding opportunities to focus on positive and hopeful stories during this trying time.
While most people will not feel the most disastrous effects of this pandemic, many will, Bray said, and those people should continue to check in with themselves and those around them when they are feeling nervous.
Keith said the main thing people can do for themselves is to focus on the facts, “but not in a way where you are looking for certainty.”
“Things can be possible but they aren’t always probable. If you wouldn’t bet your entire life savings on the certainty of an outcome you cannot stop thinking about, it is probably anxiety talking and you want to stop that broken record,” Keith said.
“It’s really normal to not know what to do or to be worried about what is going to happen,” she said. “But you can get some distance from that thought instead of trying to change it by attempting to control the things around you.”