As the spread of COVID-19 continues to widen, mental health experts at The University of Toledo say it’s natural for people to feel nervous — but it’s important not to let that fear take over your life.
“With all of the focus on this situation, it is easy to feel threatened and vulnerable,” said Dr. Linda Lewandowski, dean of the UToledo College of Nursing and a clinical psychologist, who has extensive experience in trauma research and disaster mental health. “One of the most important things we need to do to cope with the concern or anxiety all of this might engender is to keep things in perspective and not inflate the risk.”
Unquestionably, the outbreak represents a major public health challenge. On March 11, the World Health Organization officially recognized COVID-19 as a global pandemic, and many states — including Ohio — have issued states of emergency.
While the threat of COVID-19 is real and greater than illnesses such as seasonal influenza, experts say it is important to keep things in perspective. The majority of individuals worldwide who have been confirmed to have the illness suffer from minor symptoms. The World Health Organization says about 80% of cases recover without needing any special treatment.
Experts also say it is important people remember actions being taken by governments and public health officials aren’t being done out of panic, but out of a medically sound strategy to reduce our collective risk.
Here are some additional suggestions from UToledo mental health experts:
Get factual information and take realistic precautions.
Reputable sources have consistent recommendations, including frequent hand washing, staying home if you’re sick, and not wearing a mask if you are healthy.
“It is completely understandable for those individuals at high risk, those with chronic medical conditions, or older adults to experience more anxiety and/or worry,” said Dr. Jason Levine, associate professor in the UToledo Department of Psychology. “Anxiety in many instances is an adaptive response to threat. It can be motivating and protective. However, overwhelming anxiety can be stifling and cause significant disruption in one’s daily life and functioning.”
Avoid an overdose of media.
Focusing too much on minute-to-minute reporting of the situation can have a negative effect and can increase your feelings of immediate threat and vulnerability. Staying informed is important, but obsessing over media coverage can trigger your fight or flight response to a threat when the actual threat is relatively low.
“Constantly watching TV or reading news reports about the COVID-19 virus can scare you into believing that you need to worry about the virus constantly, right now, this very minute,” Lewandowski said. “Knowing the real facts from reputable sources is important for us to take realistic precautions. Relying only on information from Facebook or other social media platforms is never a good idea. Misinformation abounds on these sites.”
During the Iraq War in 2008, Lewandowski was part of a research team that found that the more people watched the news about the war, the more anxious they felt, and the more mental health symptoms they reported.
Work to keep yourself mentally healthy as well as physically healthy.
Mental health experts say anxiety has a biological purpose, with those feelings helping to push us to take steps to prepare and protect ourselves.
Experts suggest thinking about ways you have dealt with anxiety in the past and being open to exploring new strategies. For example, you might talk to a friend or family member, use mindfulness or meditation, read a book, watch an uplifting movie, or get some exercise.
“Try to develop a new routine and not fall into unhealthy practices like binge eating or drinking more,” said Dr. Cheryl McCullumsmith, professor and chair of the UToledo Department of Psychiatry. “Eating healthy, engaging in exercise, getting enough sleep, and maybe trying some new relaxation apps on your phone are ways you can stay physically and mentally healthy.”
Have and be a support network.
It’s important to maintain contact with family, friends and co-workers. Reach out. Keep in touch with and check on people who are particularly at risk or isolated and alone to help them stay connected and supported. Using FaceTime or other video-chatting apps may help to decrease feelings of isolation.
With disruptions in schedules, cancellations and other social distancing measures, it can be easy to fall at loose ends. Besides keeping up with your schoolwork or working from home on your job, figure out how you can use this time as an opportunity to do things you might not have had time for in a normal course of events.
Get help if you need it.
While some anxiety and nervousness are natural, mental health experts say if you find yourself panicked or if your fear about the situation is enough that it begins interfering with daily responsibilities and functioning, it would be wise to consider a consultation with a primary care or behavioral health provider.
“It can be helpful just to have someone to talk to about our concerns and anxieties. Some people who have a history of mental health issues or who are already feeling overwhelmed by life challenges may find their anxiety or depression heightened during a stressful period such as this,” McCullumsmith said.