Am I getting sick? Is my throat sore? Do I have COVID? Following the COVID-19 pandemic, these thoughts may sound very familiar to you. As the virus loosens its grip in many places around the world due to increasing vaccination rates, the mental health crisis that was always hidden in the pandemic is beginning to emerge in sharper focus (Kalter, 2021). The virus has introduced countless new fears into our everyday life and has compounded existing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD; Kalter, 2021). Some researchers even suggest that this “COVID anxiety syndrome” is something new altogether, combining elements of health anxiety, OCD, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Drake, 2021). While therapy is an effective approach to easing anxiety-related issues, there are also a number of actions you can take on your own to reduce your COVID anxiety.
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First, it is important to understand what COVID anxiety syndrome is and how it differs from other forms of health anxiety.
COVID anxiety syndrome frequently manifests as an inability to leave one’s house, avoidance of social interactions or of other people altogether, and a constant fear of contracting the virus; people with this syndrome tend to experience more stress, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, and they may spend a great deal of time thinking about or checking themselves for symptoms (Drake, 2021). Of course, having fears about the pandemic is normal and healthy, as COVID is a huge health concern. These fears become problematic, however, when they are growing more and more irrational, when they are disproportionate to the danger at hand, or when they disrupt the functioning of your day-to-day life. For example, it is not abnormal to feel apprehensive about going into a grocery store, but you may be dealing with more severe feelings of stress when you feel uncomfortable leaving your home or when you feel the need to wash your hands every few minutes.
COVID anxiety is closely related to another form of health anxiety called illness anxiety disorder. In fact, those with some form of illness anxiety disorder may be more likely to be affected by COVID anxiety (Drake, 2021). Illness anxiety disorder, formerly called hypochondria, occurs when a healthy individual believes they are sick or ill, even despite the reassurances of medical professionals (Cirino, 2018; Goodman, 2020a). Individuals with this disorder may interpret minor physical symptoms (such as the occasional cough, headache, or elevated heart rate) to mean that they are dangerously ill or even dying. Some who suffer from this disorder seek out excessive medical care for their imagined maladies, calling the doctor every day over new worries, while some refuse medical treatment altogether and may avoid doctor’s visits out of fear of receiving bad news. Illness anxiety disorder is a serious condition that can interfere with your relationships, work, and overall functioning; if you fear that you may be affected by this disorder, talk to a clinician or your primary care physician about treatment.
Whether you are suffering from COVID anxiety, illness anxiety disorder, or any other form of health anxiety, there are a few measures you can take to reduce your feelings of stress in your everyday life.
In the past year and a half, COVID has occupied the spotlight in news broadcasts, from each week’s death count to new strains (Kalter, 2021). Changing information and misinformation has also shaped the way that the virus has been perceived, often with the result of increasing anxieties around the virus (Drake, 2021). Indeed, a study from last year found that online health information utilization and exposure to news online predicted participants’ level of COVID anxiety (Shabahang et al., 2020). Taking some time away from media reports, especially if they are particularly negative, can ease your concerns and help reduce stress and anxiety (Goodman, 2020b; Drake, 2021).
A great amount of anxious fears revolve around questions of “what if” in which we doubt our ability to handle or solve a problem (Goodman, 2020b). In this case, these anxious thoughts might include “What if my sore throat means I have COVID?” or “What if I can’t keep my friends and family safe from the virus?” Unfortunately, you cannot simply shut these thoughts off. However, there are effective ways to address them. If your fears are about something that you have some control over, make a plan for how to solve the problem or issue that is bothering you (Goodman, 2020b). For example, if you are worried about a close contact with someone who tested positive, make a plan to get tested and quarantine. By contrast, if your fears are about something that you have no control over, ask yourself why you should bother worrying about it if you are unable to change the outcome either way. Of course, this is easier said than done, but if you are able to convince yourself that your anxious thoughts do not serve any useful purpose, you may find it easier to rid yourself of them.
Activities like meditation, yoga, exercise, gratitude journaling, mindfulness, deep breathing, or muscle relaxation can all reduce stress (Goodman, 2020b; Health anxiety, 2020). Just as they can relax your body, they also may be able to relax your mind. Try one or a few of these activities to see which ones work for you.
Especially if you have become sick over the course of the pandemic, you may have had automatic anxious thoughts. If you had a cough, for instance, you may have immediately jumped to conclusions and begun to fear the worst. A much more likely explanation for a cough, however, would be allergies, a postnasal drip, or a cold. Scanning your body for symptoms and immediately reacting to physical symptoms only serves to reinforce your anxiety, and so you should avoid this as much as you can (Goodman, 2020b).
One way to challenge your automatic thoughts is to draw a chart with two columns (“Health anxiety,” 2020). In the left column, write down the anxious thoughts you are having, no matter how exaggerated they seem. Then, challenge each of these thoughts by working them out in a more calm and rational way. In the right column, write down a more reasonable thought once you have spent some time pondering the things you are worried about. For example, in your left column might be “I have a cough and so I must have COVID” and your right column might read “Coughing is a normal sign of allergies. Maybe it was because I just mowed the lawn.” Another thought on the left column might read “My heart is racing and I feel like I’m going to pass out,” but a more balanced thought might say “A racing heart is a normal sign of stress.”
Be wary of exaggerated or hyperbolic thoughts like these. People who suffer from illness anxiety disorder tend to amplify their bodily symptoms (e.g., thinking that they are unbearably sick due to a slight headache) and catastrophize their situation, envisioning the worst possible outcome (Marcus et al., 2007). A similar effect may be taking place in COVID anxiety, in which minor fears or symptoms can become major concerns. By thinking through these automatic thoughts and placing them into a greater context, you may be able to eliminate or at least weaken some of your worries.
Avoid self-diagnosing based on what you find online. These days it is incredibly easy to type a few symptoms into a search engine and come back with a long list of possible diseases, including some severe afflictions like cancer or heart disease. Many Americans are guilty of this—in fact, a poll from 2013 found that just about 6 in 10 Americans had looked online for health information the past year (“Majority of Adults,” 2013). However, self-diagnosing from online searches will only serve to compound your anxieties and fears, as you will begin to see every mild symptom through the lens of a specific disease. If you do have serious medical concerns, it is best to schedule an appointment to be seen by a nurse or doctor.
Once again, it will help you to realize that slight changes in bodily functions like visual acuity, balance, heart rate, saliva levels, depth of breathing, and muscle tone are all healthy and normal (Goodman, 2020a). In fact, many individuals suffering from illness anxiety disorder mistakenly believe that health is defined by being symptom-free and having no discomfort or dysfunction, a belief that appears to underlie a great deal of their worrying and irrational thinking (Barsky et al., 1993).
As mandates for social distancing begin to lift in some developed countries, it may help you to take this transition slowly (Kalter, 2021; Drake, 2021). For example, you can start by moving a little bit out of your comfort zone by leaving your house more often, even if it is just for a walk. This will allow you to gradually build up the preparedness and assurance to return to pre-pandemic living, or at least something closer to it.
While all of the above measures can be helpful and effective at tackling your issues with anxiety, there is no substitute for professional help. Psychotherapy and medication have been used successfully in the treatment of illness anxiety disorder, and treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have helped many individuals overcome disabling anxiety (Cirino, 2018; Goodman, 2020a). If your anxiety causes you significant distress, interferes with your ordinary functioning, or will not go away, seek professional help.
Furthermore, COVID anxiety is rooted in real dangers as many new variants are causing serious medical concern. While it is easy to get carried away with harmful, maladaptive anxiety, if you have real fears about COVID, follow CDC guidelines or talk to your primary care physician to learn about how to keep yourself safe.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had unprecedented consequences on global health. Along with this medical health crisis has come a psychological health crisis which is only beginning to be fully understood. The new “COVID anxiety syndrome” is related to other forms of health anxiety but is more pronounced as the virus is a real and concerning threat for billions around the globe. Nonetheless, there are a number of steps you can take to protect yourself from both the COVID pandemic and the mental health pandemic. Following the advice presented herein should help you to manage fears and concerns related to the virus as you heal from the last year and a half of trauma and stress.
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Cirino, E. (2018). Health anxiety (hypochondria). Healthline.com. https://www.healthline.com/health/health-anxiety
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Goodman, K. (2020a). Health anxiety: What it is and how to beat it. AADA.org. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/health-anxiety-what-it-and-how-beat-it
Goodman, K. (2020b). Top ten COVID-19 anxiety reduction strategies. AADA.org. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/top-ten-covid-19-anxiety-reduction-strategies
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