How to Distinguish Between a Public Safety Crisis and a Personal Anxiety

A child wears a medical mask out of concern over the Coronavirus at the JFK terminal that serves planes bound for China.
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

UUnless you’re constitutionally incapable of worry (in which case, wow, enjoy!), the novel coronavirus outbreak has likely stirred up some anxiety. Across the world, people are stockpiling resources and canceling travel. But how can you tell the difference between ordinary levels of concern and an anxiety-fueled overreaction?

I had to face this head-on recently when a trip to Malaysia ended up doubling as an evacuation. You see, for the last year, I’ve been living in Wuhan, China, with my husband and three-year-old son. We came to Wuhan with open minds. We had already traveled to multiple cities in China and were ready for a change.

Of course, I had my doubts. I’m an anxious person generally, and it’s natural to be nervous about moving somewhere new. As parents, we’re always hoping that we’re making the best choices for our children. But Wuhan felt family-friendly, and the cost of living was so much lower than in the U.S., where we’re from. I never expected to be in the epicenter of a global epidemic.

We tend to watch crises from afar and say, “Oh, that’s terrible.” That’s what I thought when I first heard about the local “pneumonia outbreak” in late December — what we now know were the first cases of COVID-19. For the most part, our planning for the unexpected involved having a “nest egg” of savings.

The thought of not being able to return home after a vacation because of a global health crisis never even crossed our minds. But Wuhan was put under quarantine while we were out of the country, and we have not been allowed to return.

For most Americans, what to do is less clear-cut. So how are you supposed to channel all your coronavirus-stoked fears? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Is my anxiety about a real danger?

I’ve always lived with anxiety. Even without a global health threat, my daily anxiety sometimes builds to the point of chest pains. The moment we found out the city was locked down was intense. But I knew I had to deal — I’m the parent of a toddler, and I had to stay calm and present for my son.

Anxiety stoked by fear of the unknown can often be quieted by a deep breath or a reminder to accept the uncertainty inherent in life, says clinical therapist Tracy Matthews. “Crises occur on micro, mezzo, and macro levels,” she notes, and of course something global like coronavirus is macro level and an actual danger, not just an anxiety. Still, it can be hard to know which fears are rational and which are anxiety-driven.

“One way that people can manage their symptoms of anxiety during a macro crisis is to practice mindfulness,” Matthews told me. “Think about what is happening at that present moment. ‘Am I safe? Are my loved ones safe?’ Do not think about the future or the ‘What if?’ … From there, think about and/or write down the benefits of being alive and healthy.”

She also reminds people to be proactive, rather than reactive, and to follow the precautions recommended by health authorities such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Is keeping up with news helping or harming my mental health?

The news has a way of exacerbating one’s anxiety. It can instill unnecessary paranoia that can be counterproductive. Then again, it’s important to stay informed as the situation changes.

“The best we can do is to look to the experts whose mission it is to protect public health,” says Robert H. Shmerling, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, but he suggests some caution in taking in media or online reports. In particular, he says, “be skeptical of implausible conspiracy theories or claims of ‘fake news’ that dismiss recommendations from public health officials.”

It’s important to keep track of necessary updates in the event public transportation is shut down or there are recommendations of social distancing. And feeling prepared can assuage some anxiety. There’s something to be said for doing what is in your control to do and then working not to worry about the aspects of the situation you can’t control.

Should I plan for being displaced or quarantined?

Stephen Morse, a Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health professor of epidemiology, suggests that people “arrange to telecommute if there is an outbreak in your area. Check your sick leave policy in case you get sick. Arrange childcare for your children in case schools close.”

It’s important to develop a plan in case you have to stay where you are. You might want to ask your employer what their plans and policies are if people are not able to come into work. Will you be able to work from home? If you can’t work, will you lose income?

What can I take solace in?

Being exiled from our home in Wuhan meant leaving everything we had behind: our apartment, our belongings, and our life in that city. It has been a surreal experience to have no idea when — or if — we will be able to return. I’m experiencing a lot of mom guilt.

But we were lucky to be away when the outbreak took hold. And I take solace in the fact that my family is safe. It’s also reassuring to know that when an actual danger arose, I was able to manage my anxiety and do what needed to be done.

So do what you can to prepare, take deep breaths, and practice the best hygiene of your life.

And don’t catastrophize a catastrophe. You’ll know when the danger is real.

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