If the COVID-19 outbreak has got you checking the news a little more often—or asking yourself whether it’s time to stock up on food or medications, cancel travel, or prepare to work from home—you’re not alone.
But there’s a difference between preparing for the coronavirus and letting thoughts about the coronavirus take over your brain. The former can be productive; the latter rarely is.
I reached out to Dr. Jon Reeves, a clinical psychologist practicing in Seattle, Washington—one of the first U.S. cities to experience a true coronavirus outbreak—to learn how he might advise people with coronavirus anxiety. Reeves suggested to start by asking whether you are experiencing profitable worry or unprofitable worry.
“A relatively easy way to tell the difference between profitable worry and unprofitable worry is whether you can think of concrete actions to take that would alleviate your concerns,” Reeves explained. “Worrying about how the virus emerged and was handled at the start won’t provide you many actionable steps to protect yourself now. Your worry about someone transmitting the disease can be turned into concrete steps: washing your hands, limiting how much you touch your face, etc. Importantly, thinking about concrete steps to handle one’s worry is a way to turn unprofitable anxiety into anxiety that is quite useful.”
Yes, you read that correctly: There is such a thing as useful anxiety. The good kind of anxiety can lead you towards positive, life-improving actions, like learning how to wash your hands the CDC-recommended way.
The bad kind of anxiety, on the other hand, can lead to unproductive worry and thought spirals. If you find yourself unable to think about anything else but the coronavirus, Reeves advises you to break the spiral by literally describing what you are thinking and feeling. “Next time your thoughts are spiraling, try this: narrate your thoughts to yourself by saying, ‘I am having the thought that…’ or ‘I am having a feeling of…’”
As Reeves notes, there’s an important mental shift that comes when you switch from I’m scared to I’m having a feeling of fear. “In the first,” Reeves told me, you’re locked into the feeling. In the second, you identify your emotion and can think about it. You can do something about it.”
And by doing something about your emotion, whether it’s closing whatever Twitter feed you’re reading or telling yourself that you’re going to sing the Pizza Bagel jingle twice in a row the next time you wash your hands, you’re also doing something about your anxiety.
Which means that when you’re done, you can do something else instead.