New Reasons For Concern
We have found ourselves confronted with a worldwide crisis. The Coronavirus is creating great anxiety. The current virus outbreak is unpredictable and it is difficult to know how to go about our daily lives. Being sick for a few days is something all of us have experienced, but this is not your ordinary virus and we are being told that the risks are real. The news media is on 24 hours a day and increases our fears. Even when the news does not sensationalize, it can overwhelm us with ideas about what could happen in the future. If we dwell too much on the news, we can get caught up focusing on these worst case scenarios. At the other extreme, it doesn’t make sense for us to stick our heads in the sand. Pretending nothing is happening and just assuming things will be “fine” is potentially very dangerous. So we are caught with the dilemma of how to balance being cautious, but also living our lives without falling into panic or feeling paralyzed by worry. How do we deal with fears about our health while all this is going on?
Our current COVID-19 health crisis creates a lot of anxiety. We are faced questions and fears about what will happen. The good news is that there are skills we can use to manage anxiety during difficult times. Cognitive Therapy teaches us how to fight off our negative thoughts. Negative thinking, sometimes referred to as “irrational” thinking, creates more anxiety and panic. If we can change this thinking, then we can get through this situation with less stress. This blog will focus on how we can change those negative thoughts.
One category of thoughts is sometimes called: “Catastrophizing”. In short, the thoughts that make us feel like “this is a disaster”. Bombarded by talk of so many possible scary scenarios on the news, we start to worry about all the bad things that could happen. It is natural to worry “what if this virus gets worse?”. Our brains are wired to anticipate potential danger, so that we can avoid it. We are good at attempting to think ahead about what could go wrong. This trait has evolved to help us, but the problem is that we go too far and make ourselves anxious and miserable. We can get stuck in a spiral of these thoughts which become more extreme: “What if someone I knew got sick? What if I couldn’t work? What if we can’t buy food? What if there is not enough medicine?…” Eventually, if you keep going down the rabbit hole, you usually end up with the ultimate catastrophizing thought: “what if I die?”. Then we panic or feel paralyzed. The challenge is to recognize and change these thoughts.
Change the Thought
When you catch yourself saying one of these “what if’s”, stop yourself and rephrase it. Instead of “what if I got sick?”, say “If I get sick, I will get through it, like I always do.” or “If I get sick, it will be a challenge.” Now, a challenge is not necessarily always fun, but it is not the end of the world. Saying it is a challenge is also a reminder that it is ok, challenges are a normal part of life, and we’ve been through a lot of them. It’s not the end. It does not make these challenges stress free, however, it can prevent us from panicking.
All or Nothing
Another form of negative thought that causes health anxiety is: All or Nothing Thinking. These types of thoughts sound like this: “Everyone is going to get sick. We can’t avoid this. No one will be safe. If one person gets the virus in my house, we’ll all get it. Things like this always happen to me. Life was going well and now everything is going to be ruined.” In short, these thoughts contain words like “always”, “never”, “everyone”, “everything”. In reality, these are exaggerations, but when we say them it feels true. So the first step is to remind yourself that “always” or “never” are rarely true. Second, you can change these words to be more realistic, and it will reduce your worry: “Some people will definitely get sick.” “We will face some challenges for a while.” “We may have to change plans, but that’s life.” “We’ll have to take care of ourselves and figure out how to deal with this.” “Being sick is no fun, but if it happens, we’ll get through it.” By changing our thoughts, we’re not pretending things are fine, but we are less drastic and that helps us feel more calm.
A third type of negative thinking that causes health anxiety is “awfulizing”. When we awfulize, we use words like awful, terrible, or horrible to describe how we predict a health issue would be: “If I got the virus, that would be terrible. If too many people got sick it would be awful. If I end up in the hospital that would be horrible”. There is no doubt that being sick would not be fun. It is also true that we can rephrase these thoughts, and reduce our stress level: “If I get sick, it could be difficult.” “If someone I’m worried about gets sick, I’ll find a way to support them.” “It’s stressful worrying about getting sick.” Again, we aren’t sugar coating it, we aren’t saying things are going to be easy. We also aren’t exaggerating to the point of making ourselves miserable (before we are even, possibly, sick).
Finally, sometimes we engage in “fortune telling”. This is a type of thinking where we pretend we can predict the future. By thinking about what “might” happen, we easily move on to assuming it “will” happen. The truth is that we really don’t know. Experts can tell us that we have a 10%, 30%, even 50% chance of getting Coronavirus, but we don’t know that it will happen to us for sure. When we jump to the conclusion that something bad WILL happen, we make ourselves more anxious. Instead of saying “I’m tired, this means I’ve got the virus!”, say “Well, I’m tired, what can I do to re-engergize?” Focus on where you are right now, how you feel today in this moment. If you have a headache, it is likely that it is just a headache. If you are tired, that is a normal part of being human. We suffer needlessly when we assume the worst is actually going to happen. “That person coughed near me, I know I’m going to get it.” Well, it is possible, however it is more possible that you won’t. Remind yourself “I don’t know what’s going to happen, I can’t predict the future.”
You Can Think Differently
Remember, catch the negative thoughts. Whether it is Catastrophizing, Awfulizing, All or Nothing Thinking, or Fortune Telling, remind yourself that you can think differently. Refocus on what you know to be true today, right now. If you feel ok today, then you feel ok. If you are uncomfortable, that’s normal. Don’t get caught up in what might happen or what could happen. Be cautious, take care of yourself, but don’t assume the worst. Follow Coronavirus guidelines recommended by health authorities. Watch the news and keep up to date, but don’t watch it all the time. Remind yourself that although life may be a challenge, you have gotten through many challenges in the past. Remember, you can always change your thoughts!