Updated: 5 days ago
By Dr. Phang Cheng Kar, Consultant Psychiatrist, SunMed.
Nosophobia is the excessive fear of contracting a specific disease like HIV, tuberculosis, cancer, heart attack, and of course, the novel coronavirus infection. Given the pandemic nature of the Covid-19, it’s natural that people react to the virus with fear, worries, and anxiety.
However, excessive fear can impair our physical immunity, lead to mental health problems (e.g., panic attacks and depression), and trigger mass hysteria.
Consequently, we become more prone to develop the infection, which we hope to prevent. Below are eight psychosocial strategies to help you cope with the emotional distress associated with the virus outbreak:
1. Focus on what you can do. It’s easy to feel helpless amidst the daily bombardment of messages related to the Covid-19 outbreak. Instead of panicking, which is unhelpful, let’s be proactive and channel our energy to do what we can to minimize the risk of infection. For example, wash your hands regularly, wear a medical mask if you have respiratory symptoms, avoid crowded places, cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, avoid touching your face, and rest well.
“If there’s no solution to the problem, then don't waste time worrying about it. If there’s a solution to the problem, then don't waste time worrying about it.”
- The Dalai Lama
2. Remember – You’re not alone. Feeling isolated and believing that we’re the only ones suffering from the impact of the outbreak (e.g., traveling restriction, economic downturn) make us feel terrible. Since we're living in a global village, we’re all negatively affected. Together, we can overcome and grow from the challenges and build a better world. Communicating our negative feelings is good for emotional health. In the process of expressing and sharing our concerns, we realize we’re not alone in our struggles. This awareness is useful to buffer stress.
3. Practice mindfulness & self-compassion. The practice of mindfulness and self-compassion increases immunity and reduces inflammation. When you notice yourself worrying about the virus, try the following ‘kindful hand’ mindfulness-based exercise:
Pause and take a few slow, deep, and mindful breaths.
Tune in to your experience and pay attention to the part of the body (e.g., chest) that feels the distress the most.
Place your hand on that part of the body and soothe it (e.g., massage, stroke, or pat the chest, sing a song, or say something positive).
Remind yourself that many people around the world share similar unpleasant feelings; you’re not alone.
Radiate kind thoughts to everyone with the same experience, “I wish myself, you, and everyone well. May all people infected by the virus anxiety be safe, healthy, and happy."
4. Be aware of corona cyber infection. Far more infectious that the virus is the fear associated with the illness due to spreads of stories through the internet and social media. Here are some ways to curb cyber infection and prevent mass panic: i. Check the facts with reliable sources, e.g., the World Health Organization (WHO), the Ministry of Health Malaysia (MOH), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). ii. Check if the other reputable news agencies report the same stories. iii. Check snobes.com, a useful internet fact-checking resource to identify fake news.
5. Tame fears by putting them into perspective. In comparison, the human seasonal influenza (flu) virus have killed significantly many more people worldwide (290,000 to 650,000 yearly) than the Covid-19 (813 deaths worldwide as of 9 February 2020).
There're more deaths due to motor vehicle accidents than the Covid-19 infection in Malaysia. The Global Status Report on Road Safety published by the WHO and the World Bank in December 2018 reported that Malaysia had 7,152 deaths from road accidents in 2016 (so far, touch wood, there’s no reported death from the infection in Malaysia).
Isn’t our fear sometimes illogical and disproportionate? Thinking more rationally helps to calm the mind, which strengthens immunity.
6. Pray and radiate loving-kindness. As I continue my service as a psychiatrist in the hospital, I continuously emit kind thoughts to everyone who is emotionally affected by the outbreak.
I mentally wish others and myself, “May all patients be safe, healthy and happy,” “May the frontliners who perform the health screening take good care of themselves,” “May the hospital be free from the virus,” “May the virus mutate and transform into benign forms,” “May I be protected so that I can continue to help my clients.”
According to Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson and other experts on the study of positive psychology, this kind of loving-kindness practice can help to enhance positive emotions (e.g., love, joy, gratitude, hope), physical health and perceived social connections, all which are crucial during a crisis.
7. Be grateful and pay attention to the positive. In psychology, there’s a funny thing called ‘negativity bias.’ Experiments showed that our brains are wired to pay more attention to adverse events, like the Covid-19, than positive ones. Luckily, our brain is also neuroplastic and can change continuously throughout life. Therefore, we should cultivate gratitude - the habit of paying attention to and recalling the good things in life to reprogram our brains positively.
“It can lower blood pressure, anxiety, depression, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep,” said Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California Davis, the leading scientific expert on the science of gratitude.
While waiting for the world to find a definite cure for the virus, here’s my gratitude list to remind myself of the good-enough things in my life:
I can work to support my patients.
I can play badminton to keep myself physically fit.
I can take good care of my family members.
I can sleep, eat, and have time for reading (my hobby).
I can write this article to support people with Covid-19 anxiety.
I can do mindful breathing and appreciate the present moment.
I can learn valuable lessons from the virus, e.g., humility, appreciation, kindness.
8. This shall also pass. Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, says, “change is the only constant in life.” Everything in life is impermanent. Just like the Ebola, SARS, and MERS coronavirus, the Covid-19 outbreak will eventually stabilize and come to an end. Sooner or later, we will subsequently find a cure for the disease. Remembering the natural law of impermanence helps us to stay hopeful and ease anxiety.
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