Keep calm and wash your hands: 5 tips for managing stress around coronavirus

A heightened level of uncertainty and anxiety surrounds the novel coronavirus.

March 9, 2020, 4:12 PM

From watching the latest news on the novel coronavirus to checking constantly to see if a case has been detected in your town to waiting anxiously to see if your work or your kids' school will close, it's no secret the threat of coronavirus is stressful and anxiety-producing for some people.

In the U.S., cases of COVID-19, as the newly-identified virus is officially known, have increased to over 600 with at least 22 deaths across at least 34 states.

While those numbers have not approached the totals for other viruses like the flu, a heightened level of uncertainty surrounds coronavirus. The virus does not have a vaccine or medications to treat it, diagnostic tests for it are not widely available and there is mixed messaging from officials.

"When a risk is new, it has uncertainty," David Ropeik, author of “How Risky Is It Really?” and a speaker on risk perception and communication, told ABC News' Cheri Preston. "We don't know yet what we need to know to protect ourselves, and that uncertainty makes us feel powerless, like we don't have control over it."

There are ways to control stress and anxiety around coronavirus without buying out a local grocery store's supplies of toilet paper and bottled water, experts say.

Here are five tips to keep in mind.

1. Check the news once per day.

Take the coronavirus alert off your smartphone and set a time for you check the news once per day, recommends Anthony Puliafico, Ph.D., an assistant professor of clinical psychology in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Columbia University.

"Even though it might feel relieving in the moment to look at exactly where coronavirus is and if it's spread, that's actually leading to more and more anxiety," Puliafico told ABC News.

Reading the latest news on coronavirus once daily will keep you informed without constantly thinking about the virus and knowing every detail.

PHOTO: A stock photo of a concerned woman looking at a smartphone.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

"The more you check your phone and are thinking about coronavirus, the more your brain has new data points and is changing the estimate of how likely it is," added Abigail Marsh, professor of psychology at Georgetown University and author of "The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between." "You end up with a false perception of the future."

2. Follow recommendations, but don't go overboard.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the general public to take "everyday preventive actions" to help stop the spread of germs, including getting a flu vaccine, washing your hands, avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth, staying home when sick and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.

Further precautions -- including avoiding crowds and stocking up on supplies -- are recommended only for older people and people with severe chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease and lung disease.

Puliafico says sticking to the CDC's recommendations will ultimately help lower stress and anxiety levels.

"It's those actions that are excessive that are just meant to reduce our anxiety in the short-term," he said. "And they may, but they actually prevent us from learning how to manage our anxiety about this in the long term."

PHOTO: Customers load shopping carts with toilet paper and water at a Costco store in Carlsbad, Calif., March 2, 2020.
Customers load shopping carts with toilet paper and water at a Costco store in Carlsbad, Calif., March 2, 2020.
Mike Blake/Reuters

3. Focus on the evidence.

If you find your mind wandering to worst-case scenarios or unknowns, Puliafico says to focus on the scientific evidence of where the coronavirus stands now in the U.S.

Instead of scanning Twitter, for example, check the most recent statistics from the CDC, or speak to your doctor.

"When we're anxious, we tend to over-focus on the most dangerous components of a situation, whether that be the people who are seriously ill or where coronavirus is spreading to new areas, and we don't take in all of the other information," he said. "We don't necessarily focus on the fact that most cases of coronavirus are mild, or that many people are living around coronavirus and not contracting it."

4. Think of common-sense precautions to take.

If there are low-risk steps you can take that would ease your anxiety and be useful, go ahead and take them, advises Dr. Jen Ashton, ABC News chief medical correspondent. She gave examples of two low-risk steps she is taking: Keeping her college-age children away from her elderly parents for the time being, and temporarily relocating her son from his college -- which recently canceled classes because of the virus -- to her nearby apartment.

"I am still going about my day-to-day life with some common sense precautions," she said. "We can’t shut down the way we live but I think we can increase our awareness and take steps that don’t dramatically affect what we’re doing but, again, are low risk and may have some benefit."

"It’s a matter of taking low risk steps that you personally can take and not only could it help, it’ll probably alleviate some anxiety too," Ashton added.

Dr. Jennifer Ashton answers questions about the disease on “Good Morning America.”
Dr. Jennifer Ashton answers questions about the disease on “Good Morning America.”

5. Focus on helping others.

Most if not all of the precautions for the coronavirus -- like washing your hands and staying home if you're sick -- are designed to help stop the spread of the virus and to keep the most vulnerable people healthy.

Think about helping other people when you find your mind rushing with anxiety, recommends Marsh.

"The people that I know who are the most anxious are the people themselves who are not at high-risk, which is most of the population," she said. "Make sure you’re re-framing the nature of the risk as focusing on protecting other people."

If you are anxiously washing your hands all day to protect yourself, Marsh says to re-frame your thinking to say, "I’m keeping the people around me safe and keeping my community safe."

PHOTO: In this undated file photo, a woman washes her hands.
In this undated file photo, a woman washes her hands.
Michael Hevesy/Getty Images, FILE

If you are a parent worried about your child's health in public settings, focus on the fact that kids are less vulnerable than older adults, so guidelines and recommendations have less to do the need to protect children than spreading the virus to other people.

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