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Uncertainty and fear of the unknown: How you can conquer coronavirus anxiety
Mental Health

Uncertainty and fear of the unknown: How you can conquer coronavirus anxiety

By Dr. Judiann Jones, Supervisor Outpatient Behavioral Health | Licensed Psychologist-HSP
Posted: June 15, 2020

People are experiencing anxiety during this uncertain time due to worry and concern that something catastrophic may happen.

Some may be asking themselves: Is it safe to leave my home? How do I protect myself and my family? What if others are neglecting the recommendations?

Anxiety and the avoidance cycle

Due to the fear of the unknown and the uncertainty of the coronavirus, people are experiencing anxiety more than ever. The urge to escape or avoid is very natural, as anxiety is meant to serve as a warning signal or alarm to let us know that something dangerous is ahead and we need to protect ourselves.

For example, if we encountered a bear in the woods, we would likely experience an acute fear response that prepares us to fight, flee or freeze to protect ourselves from danger. So when we consider COVID-19, it is like the unknown bear in the woods that we are making efforts to protect ourselves from.

You probably are wondering, well if anxiety is a natural response to danger — then due to my anxiety related to the coronavirus — I must be in danger?

The problem we encounter is the fear that develops from the anxiety itself. We start to develop triggered responses to situations that are not necessarily dangerous, but make us feel anxious. In response to this anxiety we in turn escape and avoid.

For example, we may have historically gone to the doctor for our annual exam or follow-up care, but now with the fears of developing COVID-19, we postpone, delay or fail to reschedule follow-up.

It isn’t that the doctor’s appointment is inherently dangerous, but our anxiety over going to the doctor’s office can become so unbearable that we avoid. Nonetheless, had you gone to the doctor and been able to see firsthand the precautions being taken, you may feel less anxiety at your next scheduled appointment.

Anxiety:Avoidance Cycle

Figure 1 Anxiety/Avoidance Cycle


Dealing with uncertainty

With the coronavirus there are still many unanswered questions and uncertainty, but we need to develop a level of tolerance to this uncertainty. Never in life do we know the outcome before it happens — just like how we can never be 100% certain who is going to win the Superbowl or World Series.

Similarly, the first time you become a parent, get married or move to a new place, the outcome was always unknown, but was it worth doing? It best to approach our fears rather than avoid, and taking appropriate and reasonable precautions based on the knowledge/information available can help.


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What you should know about anxiety

Is anxiety uncomfortable? Yes!

Is it dangerous? No! At least not at moderate levels and in the short term.

Anxiety serves a purpose at moderate levels and has shown to improve performance. Even high levels of anxiety are not imminently harmful, rather it is the stress over long periods of time puts people at greater risk for negative health problems — like high blood pressure or heart disease, for example.

What can we do?

Consider the anxiety about coronavirus as a challenge to conquer. Think about goals you have accomplished in the past. As we challenge ourselves, move outside our comfort zone, we can surprise ourselves in our abilities.

We also need to remember that not meeting our goal completely does not necessarily mean we failed either.

Is it safe to go out in public?

There is still a danger present with the coronavirus, and it makes sense there will be the tendency to avoid leaving our homes. But is the bear chasing us — or does it just feel that way?

We want to take steps to minimize risk but not to excess. We wear a lifejacket or seatbelt to reduce risk in water or while driving. When taking these precautions, we may not prevent an accident from occurring, but we can mitigate risk.

We need to approach the coronavirus similarly — wash your hands regularly, keep a physical distance from others, wear masks in public and stay up-to-date on the recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and other reputable sources.

Challenge yourself to live! Make decisions from facts rather than feelings. For example, consider your favorite eatery and coffee shop that you have been missing over the past few months — call the business, inquire about the precautions they are taking and use that information to guide your decision process.

Get that slice of pizza, drink that latte!

Is it safe to go to the hospital to seek treatment?

Yes, very much!

As COVID-19 remains present in our community, we’re embracing new ways to care for you, including:

Touchless temperature checks and COVID-19 screening questions for all patients, visitors and staff upon entrance to any of our facilities

Continuing to limit visitors

Respecting social distancing, working to allow 6 feet spacing between individuals

Requiring masks for everyone in our facilities and providing masks to patients and visitors, if needed

Providing hand sanitizer in public areas

Conducting additional cleaning and disinfecting

Regular testing of providers and staff

Virtual and in-person COVID-19 clinic in a dedicated facility to provide safe monitoring and specialized care for our patients diagnosed with COVID-19 including patients discharged from the hospital

Learn more about what we're doing to keep patients safe at MLH facilities.

What happens I can’t get past my anxiety related to the coronavirus?

Cognitive behavioral therapy and other evidence-based approaches for anxiety can be helpful.

If you are being seen by an outpatient provider within the Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare Physician Enterprise, you can request a consultation with behavioral health as an additional resource.

You can also try a self-guided approach, such as the COVID COACH application, which can be accessed via IOS systems currently.