As a clinical psychologist, I teach my clients that anxiety is uncomfortable but not dangerous. In fact, moderate levels of anxious arousal can improve our performance, when we think about the arousal in a healthy way – it’s hard to give a good, lively speech when we feel absolutely no arousal, and some anxiety about the coronavirus can remind us to take needed precautions. Even high levels of anxiety are not themselves imminently harmful; a panic attack does not cause a heart attack. Rather, it is the sustained experience of anxiety and stress over time that can contribute to coronary heart disease and other negative health outcomes. And one of the significant risk factors for developing chronic anxiety is fearing the experience of anxiety, termed anxiety sensitivity, and repeatedly avoiding situations that trigger those feelings.
In contrast, when we come to see anxiety as signaling a challenge instead of a threat, our world gets bigger. We try new things, we surprise ourselves with what we can do, and we learn that failing is not actually the end of the world.
Of course, when an objective danger is present, it makes sense to escape that situation, but usually there is no bear chasing us in the woods – we just feel that way. Certainly, it makes sense to minimize risks in ways that don’t interfere with us living a full life; I always wear my seatbelt to reduce risks associated with driving. But what doesn’t make sense is to avoid driving altogether because I might have a car accident one day. There are so many places to see and go.
What does this mean for managing our anxiety about the coronavirus? It means we wear the equivalent of a “coronavirus seatbelt” – we do the recommended hand washing, physical distancing, wearing masks in public, and other recommended healthy precautions from reliable sources like the Centers for Disease Control. But we don’t stop living; we get creative about how to meet our goals as much as possible while still physical distancing (virtual dates are an option!) and we don’t make decisions based on panic (you probably don’t need 50 rolls of toilet paper for just your household). Of course, this is a confusing time and it can be hard to know which advice to follow. The key is to ask yourself what factors you want to guide your decisions (e.g., What is the evidence to support the advice? Is it consistent with my values and the person I want to be? How will it affect others?). Anxiety is not a good decision-maker – it’s too inflexible.