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.