Viral Anxiety and COVID-19

Erin Belanger, LMHC

As we are all aware, we have recently been faced with the news of a novel disease (COVID-19) that is spreading quickly around the world. Experts are now classifying this virus as a pandemic, which means that it has spread worldwide and affects a large number of people. This classification does not change the disease’s severity or the response to help control it. Since this virus is so new, we are learning more information about it everyday… and, as with anything unknown, the anxiety it is generating is significant. As we evaluate responses to the virus (both our own and those of our communities, country, and world), it is important that we know how to respond effectively. Read on to learn more about what we do know, how to stay informed, and the role anxiety plays in creating dangerous situations.

What do we know about COVID-19?

How does the disease spread?

What are COVID-19’s symptoms and how dangerous is it?

How do we prevent getting and giving COVID-19?

Resources for staying grounded as new information unfolds:

It is very important where you get your information from as there is a significant amount of misinformation being propagated. At best, this wrong information comes from anxious people reactively sharing their fears and, at worst, from those who attempt to take advantage of others in situations like these. For example, some people hoard general and medical supplies out of fear and others do so to take financial advantage of the shortages. Here are some resources for tracking updates and understanding recommendations for stemming the spread of this virus:

The ANXIETY Contagion:

COVID-19 is triggering multiple anxieties and that anxiety is being exacerbated by a few complicated processes.

  1. First, we have to acknowledge that getting away from the words Coronavirus and COVID-19 is near impossible right now. Even if we want to take a breath and recenter for a moment, every time we open our email, turn on the news, or visit social media… those words are there. This hyperfocus can intensify our fears and anxieties. When this happens, we are more likely to share in misinformation and anxiety driven decision making.
  2. No one likes the unknown too much, especially when the unknown can mean severe illness and/or death. The anxiety of the unknown can be powerful and opens up space for misinformation to populate as a way of “knowing” something in the interest of reducing anxiety. Unfortunately, “knowing something” in these cases causes more harm than good to both the individual and the community around them. Again, look at what happens when people begin a run on medical supplies with the erroneous belief that using a mask as an untrained layperson will protect them. Then those who need and know how to use the supplies don’t have them and lives are put at risk.
  3. This misinformation spreads like wildfire on social media. The tailoring of information to suit our personal comfort zones on social media prevents us from seeing the whole picture and thereby having all the data to make a decision. Further, we tend to make up our minds first and then select data to pay attention to that fits our conclusions, rather than the other way around. These facts mean that we are not likely to make grounded decisions if we do not actively seek to reality check our knowledge.
  4. Clearly, the mishandling of the transmission of information by our government and the mixed (at best) to false messages sent out decrease our ability to feel confident that we are safe. The challenge to leaders at all levels is to recognize their role in helping to create safety and security by first managing their own anxiety and learning about the issue from a grounded perspective. Leaders should then present accurate information in a way that expresses the reality of the risk, the appropriate reaction, and a way to monitor changes to the situation and provide updates. The response should not under or overreact based on anxiety or frustration with anxiety.
  5. Systemic anxiety is one of the most contagious issues that we face as a population, and it can cause severe repercussions, up to and including death. There is an inoculation, though, and it comes in the form of self awareness and healthy relationships that help keep you grounded (and sane).

If you need a therapist or a leadership coach to help you manage your own anxiety as you work to help others, please don’t hesitate to call us at (518)374-3514 or email