Coronavirus, H1N1, Ebola, SARS – all serious viruses that many people in the world have experienced, but are viruses that only most of us read about over the last 10 to 15 years. These are all viruses that received a mass amount of coverage in the media… Some factual, some semi-factual, some not factual at all. One fact that has not been reported on nearly as much as those that have created mass anxiety, hysteria, stigma and distorted/irrational thinking is that Coronavirus (and the other previously mentioned viruses) is NOT the end of the world as we know it. While many of us can consume news about the recent Coronavirus outbreak in China in a rational and non-fearful way, many of us cannot. There are a number of us who become fixated by the coverage and begin to take precautions (E.g. buying masks, disinfecting, excessive hand washing, etc.), but there are also those who develop what is known as ‘Health Anxiety.’
While ‘Health Anxiety’ is not listed as an official diagnoses in mental health ‘Bible,’ the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5), what used to be known to the general public as ‘hypochondriasis’ or ‘hypochondria’ is now titled somatic symptom disorder and/or illness anxiety disorder. While Registered Psychotherapists, Social Workers and Counsellors are not permitted to diagnose in Ontario, the blanket term ‘health anxiety’ is often used and is, simply put, a condition in which certain people worry excessively about their health. For example, one can severely exaggerate the risk of having contracted, or soon contracting, a disease being heavily covered in the media like Coronavirus.
Researchers and mental health professionals have known for some time that people judge risk based on a complex balance of emotion and deduction. More often than not, emotion wins the fight over deduction.
Our instinctual reactions are very quick and automatic. Our immediate and instinctual reactions are beneficial in instances when the facts are not yet available… or there is not enough time to process the little that is known. Analytical reasoning is much slower and much more of a task for our brains. If we depended on analysis alone, decisions about risk would “paralyze us” (Carey, 2014, para. 13).
In everyday life, the mind juggles the two methods of risk assessment. Research into this process, much of it completed by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his research partner Amos Tversky, shows that our instinctual reactions “can alter how people gauge the odds in making a wide variety of presumably rational decisions,” such as investing our income to preparing for natural disasters (Carey, 2014, para. 14).
When it comes to something like the Coronavirus, let’s say for the purpose of this article, the chance of infection is one in 120 million. Most people would not be overly concerned about contracting the virus and instead view this estimation as being, basically, a near zero chance of happening to them. BUT if a co-worker happens to mention that they know a friend of a friend who contracted the virus recently, it is then that our “instinctive risk assessment system” kicks in and our focus is now on this instance rather than the ‘bigger picture’ and valid statistical facts (Carey, 2014, para. 15). Our thoughts and worries shift to – ‘Oh no, maybe I WILL BE the one in 120 million! Right!?’
Most researchers, psychologists and mental health professionals would agree that anxiety is an evolutionary process designed to not only protect us from danger, but also motivate us to carry out the daily tasks of life (E.g. go to our jobs and complete required duties). For some of us, our ‘nervous systems’ can ‘get out of whack’ and not only cause us to exaggerate the risk of contracting and dying from something like the Coronavirus, but also cause us much stress and physical consequences. In fact, the excessive worrying one may do over contracting a disease or virus may, in itself, make one ‘sick’… As the old saying goes – ‘Don’t worry yourself sick.’
Addressing ‘Health Anxiety’
So what are some steps one can take when someone themselves, a friend, family member or co-worker, notices that they are excessively worrying about their health? Below are a few effective actions one can take:
1) Book an appointment with a mental health professional such as a Registered Psychotherapist, Counsellor, Psychologist or Registered Social Worker. These professionals are highly trained in treating anxiety and have likely helped many clients overcome their ‘health anxiety.’
2) Avoid ‘over-checking’ news coverage, media, or researching what your fear is related to (E.g. contracting the Coronavirus). Limit yourself to one short, FACTUAL news source a day from a reliable source. ‘Checking’ is often done by those with ‘health anxiety’ in an attempt to understand the illness and reduce their fears, but, in fact, only intensify ones worries.
3) Try your best to avoid visiting the doctor for reassurance. Again, this is often done in an attempt to reduce one’s fears over having and/or contracting a disease or virus. Unfortunately, patients often leave feeling relieved for only a short period of time with even more fears and worries returning hours or days later.
4) GET BUSY! Anxiety and fear hate when our minds are occupied, especially with activities that are healthy and enjoyable. Whether it be playing sports, going to the gym, painting, rock climbing, or playing videogames with friends, keeping our minds occupied prevents us from allowing our fearful thoughts to creep in and dominate our lives.
Jordon is a counsellor and coach at Brant Mental Health Solutions, located at 139 Grand River St. N. in Paris, Ontario. Jordon holds a Master of Arts in Counselling, is a Certified Coach Practitioner and is currently working under the supervision of a Registered Social Worker. Jordon specializes in helping clients manage stress, overcome anxiety, low mood, interpersonal issues and difficult life transitions.
Carey, B. (2014). Experts offer steps for avoiding public hysteria, a different contagious threat.
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