As coronavirus cases increase around the country, the idea of a Philadelphia outbreak is causing anxiety for many, therapists and psychologists say.
Fewer people are patronizing Chinese-owned businesses, not just in Chinatown but also in Northeast Philadelphia. Stores can’t keep hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes on the shelves, and face masks are so scarce, there could be shortages for the health-care workers who need them most. Social media is teeming with fears over getting the virus on trains and buses.
And that doesn’t even factor in what happens if the virus spreads and people are confined to their homes for a quarantine period. Studies on the mental health effects of quarantine found that people often experience post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. Potential stressors include fears of infection, boredom, inadequate supplies, lack of information, and financial loss.
While everyone should be preparing for coronavirus, balancing anxiety and readiness can be tricky, said Holly Sawyer, a therapist who works with Temple students and in a private practice. One way to alleviate stress about “a situation you cannot control” can be to limit news consumption to information that is helpful to your life, Sawyer said.
“You want to stay informed, but you also want to minimize how much you are listening to, watching, or reading the news,” she said. “Don’t oversaturate yourself, because that is going to increase your anxiety.”
Sorting through information about the virus can be an anxiety-inducing experience for some, said Faith Gordon-Mazur, a licensed professional counselor who works in Society Hill.
“People seem more afraid that if there is an outbreak, there will be so many people becoming ill or dying due to human error or mistakes that might be made,” she said. “The uncertainty that exists right now is hard for people to manage. We prefer predictability and like to be able to anticipate what is going to happen as it increases a sense of safety. When that is not present, people try to find it; then when the information is unclear or contradictory, this can sometimes create even more ambiguity resulting in increased stress and fear.”
Gordon-Mazur said that people should think about feeling informed and prepared for a likely situation vs. propelled into panic due to thinking about worst-case scenarios. She said that when people notice that their thoughts are spiraling away from them, it’s helpful to think about what they can realistically do.
“It is totally appropriate to do what would be considered normal preparations for a disaster as there are a number of reliable resources that offer guidelines with this information,” Gordon-Mazur said. “If you want to stock up on nonperishable food items, make sure you have a supply of toilet paper and plenty of water — there’s nothing wrong with that. But when it tips over into large volumes or is taking up too much mental space — then that may be coming from a place of panic.”
Sawyer said that if people are worried about their family members who live in the countries that are most affected by the virus, they should reach out through video chats and phone calls to minimize feelings of isolation, when traveling isn’t an option.
“I’ve also suggested incorporating some type of activity into your life to shut off your mind for a couple hours, because we’re coming up on something we can’t control,” Sawyer said. “That could be meditation, playing a video game, having normal conversations with your friends, or reading something fun that’s not news."
Sawyer is not recommending that clients go to the gym or other shared spaces, where they will worry about contracting the virus. And if someone has to ride the bus or train, she said, they can be cautious about how often they touch the pole and where they’re sitting.
“We still have to live," Sawyer said. "But there are some things that you can do so you’re not totally exposing yourself.”
Gordon-Mazur agreed, saying that it’s important for people to focus on taking care of themselves in ways they already know work for them, such as getting enough sleep.
“Sometimes we forget that the simplest things can give us the most immediate relief,” she said. “For example, with the news, it’s helpful to notice when the information is becoming repetitive because then you can turn it off.”