Five ways to conquer your covid-19 fears

(Andrea Ucini for The Washington Post)

Amanda Ripley is a contributing writer at the Atlantic and the author of “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why.”

Last week in San Diego, a doctor friend of mine saw 24 patients from different walks of life. Just less than half were struggling with anxiety, which is understandable, given the circus tent of worry we’re all waking up inside of every day.

Another 40 percent were exhibiting more mysterious symptoms. Some had strange rashes on their face. Others had eye and throat irritations or a tightness in their chest that they couldn’t explain. Could it be, they wanted to know, the novel coronavirus?

After talking with each of these patients, and listening carefully, Sabrina A. Falquier, an internal medicine specialist, realized that all of these mystery patients had something in common. “Sure enough, it comes out, ‘Oh yes, I’ve been cleaning,’” she said. They’d been overusing bleach products in their homes in response to the coronavirus threat. Some were cleaning three or four times a day. Others were not watering down the bleach enough before using it. (Bleach must be dramatically diluted to avoid injury. Plain old soap can be a better weapon against this particular virus.)

The anxiety patients were not so different from the bleach patients, in other words. Like all of us, they were trying to find ways to handle a threat that’s unpredictable and invisible, which is hard to do. Both were at risk of making things worse in the process. “There’s so much we can’t control,” Falquier says. “So there’s a sense of, ‘If we clean enough, the virus will go away.’”

Right now, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they are scared about their own family’s health, according to a new poll by More in Common and YouGov. Three-quarters believe we are likely heading for an economic depression. Calls to the federal Disaster Distress Helpline (call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746) are up 500 percent, according to a spokesperson. These numbers represent a secondary pandemic.

Fear requires two elements: a perceived threat and a sense of powerlessness to defeat that threat. Since the feeling of fear is distinctly unpleasant, most of us will try to counter it in the days to come — by turning down the threat level or by amping up our sense of control.

In the first category, we might convince ourselves this is all an overreaction. I did this in the beginning, I admit. The whole thing felt like a giant snow day, or so I told myself. The Internet is happy to help with this, as is the brain. Denial is the most common human response to all kinds of disasters, from fire to floods to pandemics. We might also use food, drugs or alcohol to take the edge off the threat. ( My current preference is chocolate chip cookies.)

In the second category of options, we might try to reclaim some sense of control over the threat. This is the beginning of an excellent plan. (Take back the blight!) But it can also backfire, as it did for the bleach patients. It’s easy to overcorrect in a time of high anxiety.

Consider this: After 9/11, many thousands of Americans decided to drive places instead of flying when they had a long trip to make. Driving felt safer after the horrors of the terrorist attacks. Of course it did.

But feeling safer isn’t the same as being safer. In the two years after 9/11, an estimated 2,300 Americans died because they drove instead of flying to their destinations, according to a 2009 study by three Cornell University researchers. Despite how it felt, flying remained much safer than driving, even after 9/11. But thousands of people died — while trying to avoid dying.

The trick right now is to take control over this threat, without making things worse. For her patients, Falquier recommends they boost their immune systems in five specific ways. Until this advice becomes as cliched as the advice to “wash your hands” and “stay home,” it bears repeating. These actions give us control in ways that are proven to make us demonstrably stronger, not just emotionally safer.

First, eat whole foods, which are dense with immunity boosting nutrients. Second, talk with other humans by phone or video. Third, sleep (ideally at the same time each night, more or less). Fourth, exercise at least 30 minutes a day. And finally, try to do something that keeps your brain resting in the present for a little while (whether it’s gardening, listening to music or meditating). Maybe cleaning is that thing for you. Fine. But read up first. Make sure you’re going to war with the weapon you need, not the weapon that slowly poisons you.

All these things give us back control, which prevents fear from becoming disabling. “If you are doing all five things on a regular basis, your immune system gets revved up,” Falquier says. “You’ll have the antioxidants and vitamins and minerals ready to fight this virus.”

Fear is not new. Nor is danger and uncertainty. Americans have a long history of navigating both. The solution is to take back control, very carefully.

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

Read more:

Jason Rezaian with Kate Woodsome and Danielle Kunitz: I survived solitary confinement. You can survive self-isolating.

Alyssa Rosenberg and Eugene Robinson ‘Wolf Hall’ book club: The sweating sickness

Laura Vanderkam: We have a lot more time now. So why can’t we get anything done?

Julie Gottman: In lockdown with your partner? Here’s how healthy couples survive.

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