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Struggling with ‘coronavirus anxiety’? Memorial Health expert shares advice on calming your worries

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — From the bare store shelves formerly stocked with disinfectant supplies, to people getting antsy at the sound of a cough or sneeze, it’s safe to say that COVID-19 has a lot of people on edge.

However, some people online have said the constant media coverage and rising numbers in reported cases have had a significant impact on their mental health.

The culture writer for Rolling Stone tweeted that her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is making her even more concerned that she and her family may become sick.

“A big part of treatment is weighing the risk of these fears to determine if they’re rational or not, and the news coverage has made it much harder to suss out the answer to that [question],” EJ Dickson shared via Twitter.

She’s not alone. Others have shared on social media that coronavirus has them increasingly worried.

“This is new, and anything that’s new and impacts a lot of people is scary,” said Lindse Murphy, Memorial Health’s executive director of behavioral health services.

Murphy tells WSAV.com NOW that certain people, including those with OCD, may be experiencing the impacts more than others.

“People who are going to be more at risk for being extremely anxious or getting into a panic with this are people who are already susceptible to a mental health condition like OCD or an anxiety disorder, maybe even individuals with schizophrenia or bipolar,” Murphy said.

“They’re going to be more likely to fixate on something or have even have some sort of delusion around an illness that may or may not be true, may or may not be the reality,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that others who might react more strongly to the stress of the ongoing outbreak include kids, people dealing with substance abuse and people who are helping out with the COVID-19 response, like doctors and other health care providers.

People struggling with “coronavirus anxiety” might obsess over the fear that a loved one has been infected with the coronavirus. 

In light of the deluge of hand-washing reminders circulating the media and on the web, those people might also obsess over keeping their hands or surfaces free of germs.

Murphy says this behavior borderlines between what’s normal and abnormal if it impacts their daily routines.

“If people are locking themselves in their house and scared to go to work or take their kids to school, then that’s going into where it’s really going into fear-based panic,” she said.

Other potential reactions, according to the CDC, might include: 

  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs

While others who don’t share similar exacerbated concerns about the virus might downplay the fears of others, Murphy says it just boils down to not having an understanding of anxiety.

“Anxiety is very real, and one in four Americans are likely living with an anxiety disorder, whether it’s been diagnosed or not,” Murphy said, adding that the best thing people in general can do is try to decrease the stigma surrounding COVID-19.

“Acknowledge someone’s feelings and empower them by giving them accurate and timely information, and allow them to talk through what they’re worried about,” Murphy advised.

What to do if you’re feeling anxious?

For those doing their best to manage their coronavirus-related anxiety, Murphy said the best thing to do, at first, is to “just breathe.”

“I know it’s really scary, just try to relax,” Murphy said. “Do everything in your control and focus on those things you can do to protect yourself, like washing your hands, disinfecting surfaces or checking the news outlets that are going to have the most up-to-date information, like the CDC website.”

She also recommended limiting exposure to social media platforms or anything that’s going to increase fears and worries.

“It’s definitely okay to check news channels or websites once a day to see if there’s an update, but obsessively going back and checking things to the point of not being able to do your normal daily routine is just going to increase that anxiety,” Murphy said. 

If the fears reach the point of feeling like the person is in a crisis, people can always seek additional help from a therapist or by visiting their local emergency room, Murphy recommended.

“Surround yourself with people that you can talk about this with in a healthy way, but also remember that you need to go on with your day-to-day routine,” she said.

It helps to know your risk factors, including elderly people, those with compromised immune systems or individuals with upper respiratory infections. 

If you’re worried that you’re experiencing coronavirus symptoms and that it’s causing anxiety, Murphy says visit your primary care provider to get checked out. 

“Nine times out of 10, it’s probably just a typical cold and something that’s going to resolve, and then you can sleep better that night, knowing that everything’s okay,” she said.

Learn more about the CDC’s guidance on mental health and coping during the coronavirus outbreak by visiting their website.

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