Updates about travel advisories, school closings and a slew of famous people coming down with the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, have a lot of Canadians on edge.
It’s a reasonable response, experts say. But if the concern becomes worrisome or panic, then it can be a problem.
Part of the issue is that, yes, people should be taking the threat of COVID-19 seriously, and it’s hard to say at this point exactly how much concern is warranted.
“There’s so many uncertainties, it’s very difficult to say,” said Dr. Steven Taylor, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia and author of the book The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease.
Anxieties during pandemics tend to wax and wane, and are the highest right at the beginning, he said.
READ MORE: Latest updates — Coronavirus in Canada
Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto-Scarborough, said that events in the last few years, like the threat of missiles from North Korea, or the Australian wildfires, have contributed to some people feeling helpless.
“And now we have this COVID virus, which is so defined by ambiguity. We don’t know where it’s going. Don’t know how much it’s going to grow,” he said.
“All these things lead to a feeling of victimization, like bad things are happening to us and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”
People then act so that they can feel more in control, he said. For some, this means panic buying.
“People think of, ‘What can I do? Well, I can at least be ready if I’m quarantined.’”
While governments do recommend keeping an emergency kit on hand, they aren’t suggesting stocking up on several months’ worth of toilet paper. So, Joordens thinks, there are more productive things people could do.
Worry isn’t a very effective strategy for dealing with challenges, said Dr. Vaile Wright, a psychologist and director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association.
“The worry isn’t going to stop anyone from contracting the virus.”
People need to be taking this seriously, but not going into panic mode, she said. She too mentioned how important it is to maintain a sense of control.
“The things that are in your control are your thoughts, your feelings, your behaviours,” she said. So, it’s about managing stress in a productive way.
This can mean following public health advice like washing your hands regularly and not attending crowded events, she said. It can also include eating healthy, trying to stay active, and sleeping well, all things that will help your mental health.
If you find yourself feeling overly stressed from the barrage of headlines and social media posts about the virus, Wright suggests you just take a break — advice echoed by the World Health Organization.
“We actually do know from numerous studies that while people want to stay connected and know what’s going on, it does drive up their stress levels,” she said.
“If you’re that kind of person where you recognize that reading the headlines, that staying connected is causing you additional stress, we do recommend taking a break.”
It’s important to stay informed by checking reliable sources like government public health agencies, or the WHO, but constantly scrolling your social media feeds could just cause more stress, she said.
Joordens recommends setting limits on your media time and avoiding it right before bed.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, he recommends techniques like “guided relaxation,” which can teach you to slowly relax every part of your body.
You can also refocus your response to the outbreak, he said, by shifting your mindset from protecting yourself to protecting others. Washing your hands to protect yourself feels different than washing your hands to protect vulnerable members of your community, he said. “It’s like, no, you’re doing something to take on the threat.”
Ultimately, Joordens said it’s important to remember that this won’t last forever.
And, said Taylor, you will get through the anxiety, even before the pandemic is over.
“I think the important thing is that people, in general, are highly resilient,” he said.
“People will adapt to this being the new normal, and they’ll get on and knuckle down and cope with their lives.”