The novel coronavirus has a long list of terrifying characteristics, spurring people from Japan to Europe to the U.S. to engage in panic buying, devour news coverage, steal hand sanitizer and face masks, fret that a throat tickle might mean a fatal illness, enter prepper mode, and otherwise succumb to Covid-19 anxiety.
“We are seeing increasing levels of anxiety [in the U.S.] over a relatively short period of time,” said Vaile Wright, director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association.
Covid-19 distress has reached such levels that the World Health Organization on Tuesday issued guidelines for protecting mental health during the outbreak. “Avoid watching, reading or listening to news that cause you to feel anxious or distressed; seek information mainly to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones,” it advised. “Seek information updates at specific times during the day once or twice. The sudden and near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel worried.”
Some anxiety is clearly warranted, especially if it pushes people to take precautions against contracting or spreading the novel coronavirus. On Wednesday, the WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic
, health care systems in some countries are being pushed to the breaking point
, and the U.S. system could also be overwhelmed
, with shortages of hospital beds and ventilators. Covid-19 is more transmissible than seasonal flu and also more deadly, with a fatality rate that appears to be 20 to 30 times higher. And unlike flu, no one has any immunity against this coronavirus from either previous exposure or vaccination. “The things people need to be doing are real,” Wright said.
As worrisome as these facts are, Wright and other psychologists identify seven additional reasons propelling Covid-19 anxiety to the point where it may be counterproductive, as WHO also recognized:
More than any other aspect of the pathogen and the disease it causes, uncertainties instill a deep sense of dread. The uncertainties include who is most at risk of infection or severe illness (or death), who can spread it, what protective steps are warranted (is hand-washing and staying away from indoor crowds sufficient, or should you not leave your home?), and how the outbreak will unfold. “What we know from the psychological science is, it’s uncertainty that drives anxiety,” Wright said.