Coping with Coronavirus Fears and Anxiety


Empty shelves. Shortages of hand sanitizer and soap. Self-isolation.

As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, continues to spread across the globe, so do fears and anxiety surrounding the virus.

Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress. And while it is normal to feel anxious before starting a new job or speaking in public, too much anxiety can be unhealthy.

In a recent interview, Emanuel Maidenberg, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, explained why COVID-19 is causing so much anxiety, and how to cope with it.

Why are so many people feeling anxious about COVID-19?

The perception of uncertainty and the perception of the threat of potential harm to each one of us activates our survival responses. In other words, it makes us anxious.

Is the fear justified?

Yes, it is justified. However, it can become counterproductive and unhelpful if it becomes pervasive and interferes with our daily activities.

Are certain people at a higher risk of pandemic-related anxiety?

Yes, people with a prior history of excessive worry or difficulties coping with uncertainty are more likely to become anxious and distressed.

How can people tell when their anxiety level is problematic?

It becomes excessive when it starts interfering with one’s social and professional activities or relationships.

What can people do to help control anxiety?

I would suggest taking time-outs from news and media coverage, and putting an increased focus on self-care. Physical activity is helpful. There is a warning not to participate in physical activity in group settings, but you can engage in activities outdoors, such as going for a run. Also, spending time with family and doing anything that has been helpful in the past during times of increased stress. If we review our history, typically we find two or three things that have helped us in the past.

When should people seek professional help? When the level of distress interferes with our daily activities. Difficulty focusing on a task at hand, disrupted sleep, changes in appetite, decreased energy -- if all of these things come together and persist, it could be a signal to get some professional advice on how to cope more effectively with the anxiety.

How should parents and teachers talk to children who are feeling anxious?

Validate and normalize children’s feelings of anxiety and worry about the virus, and do not assume that you know or understand what they are afraid of. Be curious and supportive by sharing your own feelings of anxiety or frustration, encourage and model trying new and different activities while staying home.