How to Manage Your Fear During the Coronavirus

Fear of the virus may be more infectious than the virus itself

Image: Xia Yang/Getty Images

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ItIt can harm people’s health and weaken entire societies. Thanks to modern technology, it can spread rapidly around the world. And there is no effective vaccine.

I’m not referring to Covid-19, although the coronavirus can serve as its catalyst. Rather, an infectious agent that is as old as civilization itself and is rapidly reaching epidemic proportions: fear.

Fear can take both a physical and psychological toll. It thrives in an atmosphere of distrust and confusion. As Franklin Roosevelt famously remarked, as he began his Depression-era presidency, fear needs to be identified and confronted.

“The fear of the virus may spread faster than the virus itself,” says Norbert Schwarz, a provost professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Southern California. “Unfortunately, that fear will also spread to totally unrelated domains of life. A decade ago, the threat of swine flu not only increased Americans’ concern about getting the flu — it also increased the perceived risk of getting a heart attack, dying in an accident, or being the victim of crime.”

“Once the world feels like a dangerous place, where bad things can happen any moment, fear knows few limits.”

Fear of new phenomena — such as this previously unknown virus — is especially potent, according to E. Scott Geller, a behavioral psychologist and alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech. “Everywhere you go, people are talking about it,” he says. “As we communicate about it, we’re sharing our uncertainty — and uncertainty is scary.”

“Statistically, we lose more lives on the highway than in most epidemics, but on the highway, we’re in control,” says Geller. “We say to ourselves, ‘That’s not going to happen to me because I know how to prevent it.’ But with this virus, we don’t know that. So the more we hear about it, the scarier it feels.”

James Dillard of Penn State, an expert in communication, describes a similar dynamic: “Every time somebody mentions the coronavirus to you, you recall everything you read about it and the feelings you experienced at the time.” He says, “So your fear is triggered again.”

“Once the world feels like a dangerous place, where bad things can happen any moment, fear knows few limits.”

That’s problematic for several reasons. Chronic stress not only results in long-term health consequences, but it can prompt people to make unwise choices, such as buying up masks that health care workers need or making unnecessary visits to already-overburdened hospitals or clinics.

Traditionally, fear spreads primarily through person-to-person contact — including in nonverbal ways. As a 2015 study reported, research has demonstrated that exposure to body odors from frightened individuals elicits fear in others. The smell of fear is a real phenomenon.

Today we have a much more efficient means of transmitting anxiety: social media. Jiyoung Lee, an assistant professor in the University of Alabama’s College of Communication and Information Sciences, has studied online emotional contagion. She argues virtual discussions with friends can be positive if accurate information is shared and people are reassured.

But research also shows that if a piece of news frightens or angers us, we’re more likely to retweet it, even if we haven’t checked its accuracy. That’s a huge problem. A study Lee conducted found that when social media posts about a spreading virus contain “fear-arousing disinformation,” subsequent corrections or “flags” had little or no impact.

“In order for misinformation to be corrected, people have to evaluate it in a logical manner,” she says. “Emotions can paralyze logical thought.” She argues social media platforms need to do a better job of keeping such material off in the first place — and users need to get in the habit of checking with reliable news sources before sending stories to their friends.

The last time an infectious disease got this much attention was 2016, when mosquitoes spread the Zika virus, which was discovered to cause the birth defect microcephaly in infants if a woman was infected when she was pregnant. Shortly after the alarm was sounded, Dillard and his colleagues collected data on 581 pregnant women living in the southern United States, asking about their level of fear and their emotional coping strategies. They then re-interviewed the women two weeks later.

The bad news: None of the strategies, including avoiding news of the virus or minimizing its importance, lowered their anxiety levels. And one technique — suppressing their negative thoughts and feelings — resulted in higher levels of fear two weeks later. Dillard compares this to the “Don’t think about a pink elephant” conundrum. Telling yourself not to feel fear is similarly counterproductive.

So what can we do to cope with these uncomfortable feelings, and avoid passing them to others? Schwarz reports fear is often attenuated when people are fully aware of why they’re feeling it. You’re scared of the coronavirus? Perfectly understandable. But if that fear permeates into other unrelated areas, remind yourself of its source.

Dillard advises people to “turn off the politicians and go to the CDC website. Pay attention to the scientists. Don’t listen to people who believe it’s their job to amplify the threat.”

Geller suggests doing whatever you can to feel in control of the situation. Take the precautions that the health authorities suggest, such as frequent hand-washing. Boost your immune system with healthy habits and activities, such as regular exercise. Stock up on food and water, just in case the authorities order you to stay indoors for a while.

Actions can be empowering, and thus counteract fear, at least for a time. So can deciding against taking certain steps, such as posting unverified information. By now, we all know about the importance of not touching our eyes, nose, or mouth. We might also want to keep our fingers away from the “post” button.

The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving. To stay informed, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as your local health department for updates. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.

Tom Jacobs is a California-based journalist who focuses on psychology, behavior, creativity, and the arts. He was the senior staff writer of Pacific Standard.

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