Every time I feel a little under the weather, I panic that I have COVID-19. How can I deal with hypochondria going into the winter?
- Experiencing some level of concern when you or a loved one has symptoms that could be COVID is a healthy reaction intended to keep you safe.
- Manage anxiety and reduce your risk by controlling what you can, like learning the differences between cold, flu, and coronavirus symptoms and getting the flu shot.
- Regularly practicing stress-relief techniques like meditation can also strengthen the part of your brain that allows you to observe facts without your emotions taking over.
- If your worry is affecting your daily functioning, seek professional help from any of the many virtual practices available these days.
- Have a coronavirus quandary for Anna? Submit it anonymously here.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
I have chronic allergies, so every time I get a scratch in my throat I become alarmed and wonder: Is this COVID?! My panic isn't limited to me. Every time my kids cough, I fear it's "corona cough," and when my husband told me he had a sore throat (that turned out to be allergies), I freaked. He now wishes he hadn't told me.
I've used deep breathing to help calm down in the moment and got a rapid test once, but I've also done some crazy things like drink garlic water (gross). How can I stay both safe and sane this winter when there will be even possible explanations — like the cold and flu — for these symptoms?
— Ashley, Washington, DC
I feel you. I woke up in the middle of the night in April with a sore throat and a piping hot forehead, and proclaimed: "I've got it." By the morning, I was convinced I would die — and I'm usually the opposite of a hypochondriac.
While my symptoms passed within 24 hours, the emotional impact was startling. You're smart to be thinking about how to manage similar anxieties as the seasons change yet again.
First, recognize that your fears serve an important purpose. As one of my favorite anxiety pros, licensed psychologist Julie L. Pike, told me, "Anxiety is mother nature's way of trying to protect us by pushing us to resolve uncertainty and figure out a solution."
If you didn't have some level of concern when you or a loved one had coronavirus symptoms, you'd be more likely to make reckless decisions that could harm your health, your community, and the trajectory of this very real and deadly disease.
The key is keeping those anxieties in check so as not to shatter your well-being and ability to carry out responsibilities, like caring for your kids and doing your job. I talked to Pike and other experts about what works best to strike this balance.
Take control of what you can, like wearing a mask and getting the flu shot
Ever since first hearing the phrase "action is the antidote to anxiety," it's stuck with me because it's so true.
In the case of the coronavirus, there are a lot of actions you can take (or, in many cases, not take) to protect yourself and your family. Wear a mask when you're in public, choose outdoor over indoor settings when possible, avoid close contact with people outside of your household, you know the drill.
The more public-health strategies you heed, the lower your risk of contracting COVID-19 and the less likely your scratchy throat can actually be contributed to the virus.
Educate yourself on the difference between coronavirus, cold, flu, and allergy symptoms, too. While there's plenty of overlap, coronavirus patients often develop a fever before a cough, while the common cold typically announces itself with a sore throat, my colleague Aria Bendix has reported.
It's also critical you and your family get the flu shot. While it doesn't guarantee you won't get the flu, it does drastically lower your risk and again can help you narrow down what any symptoms may be attributed to.
As a bonus, the flu shot can indirectly protect you from COVID-19, since getting the flu weakens your immune system, making you more susceptible to the coronavirus. And it is possible to get both at once (not to add more to your panic pile).
Finally, don't be afraid to call a healthcare professional to ask whether or not your symptoms and situation warrant a coronavirus test. While it's not necessary to get one every time you feel less than 100%, testing is a critical tool that can both help answer your question (Is it COVID?) and contribute data to national efforts to conquer this pandemic.
Incorporate other stress management strategies
You said you use deep breathing to handle stress in the moment, which is awesome. Pike also recommended strategies like putting your hands over your head the way you might crossing a finish line to signal to your brain that you're safe.
"Our thoughts are really a product of what our body is experiencing," she said.
It's also a good idea to incorporate other stress-management techniques when you're not in the depths of panic.
Pike told me that regular practices like yoga, meditation, and Tai Chi "actively build up and strengthen the part of your brain that allows you to observe without reacting emotionally." In other words, meditating just a few minutes a day can help you stay calm the next time your kid coughs.
Making a daily "gratitude list" can work wonders building psychological resilience, too, Pike said.
That "helps us to stop narrowly focusing on potential threats or negative elements in our environment, which our limbic brain … is wired to do," she said. "Widening our perspective and recognizing that while things are challenging and uncertain, there are also good things in our daily lives" can make a big difference.
Don't be afraid to get help
Everyone who's paying enough attention to the state of our world is dealing with elevated stress right now. But a startling portion of them are dealing with something more: clinical levels of anxiety and depression.
A CDC report out in August found that about a quarter of Americans had symptoms of anxiety and about the same percentage had symptoms of depression during the month of June. That's three and four times higher, respectively, than those who met the same criteria during the second quarter of 2019.
The better news is that therapists around the country have shifted their practices online, allowing you access to far more than you'd have if you were limited to those in the DC area. Plus, virtual therapy services like Brightside and TalkSpace remain available, and some therapists are holding free online group therapy sessions.
Pike told me not to get caught up in the "trauma Olympics" — for example, telling yourself you don't need help because other people have it way worse. Instead, consider this the perfect time to build lifelong tools for coping with stress and anxiety. Your future self will thank you.
Senior health reporter Anna Medaris Miller is here to help you make decisions about living life in the current "normal," which is anything but. Drawing on her in-depth reporting on the pandemic; connections with medical, mental health, and public health experts; and own life and common sense, she'll help you get through coronavirus quandaries big and small. Submit your questions for Anna anonymously here.
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