Waking up with an unexpected sniffle. Passing a person on the street who's coughing. Walking into a busy grocery store.
These kinds of scenarios might not have stressed you out this time last year, even with cold and flu season ramping up. But in 2020, the looming threat of COVID-19 probably has you on edge — or even straight up anxious — about getting sick. And that in turn can actually be bad news for your health.
"Excess in anything is no good. Being vigilant and tracking symptoms can be part of being healthy, but it can also reach a point where it becomes too much," says New York City-based psychotherapist Daryl Appleton, EdD.
So what can you do to keep those unwanted worries in check without totally throwing your guard off? Here, some strategies for staying sane as you venture into this question mark of a sniffle season, where the stakes feel so much higher than normal.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
First, Know That It's Normal to Feel Anxious Right Now
Anxiety doesn't feel good, but it actually serves an important safety purpose, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
When you're worried, you're more likely to stay on alert for potential threats and take steps to protect yourself. In the case of the pandemic, that could mean being hypervigilant about symptoms you may not have paid attention to before, or feeling stressed about activities that aren't normally a big deal, like meeting up with friends or stopping at the grocery store.
You're definitely not weird for feeling that way. "It's normal to feel more anxious, given that COVID-19 has such a broad spectrum of vague, generalized symptoms that are common among many infections," Sunitha Posina, MD, a board-certified internist in Stony Brook, New York, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
In addition to not being able to tell when you might actually have COVID, there's the fear of developing complications or infecting loved ones who could be at higher risk. To top it off, you're dealing with the added anxiety that it's possible to get infected and make others sick even without any symptoms. That can be a lot to deal with.
But Too Much Stress Can Actually Up Your Risk for Getting Sick
Getting your anxiety under control can lift some of that emotional weight off your shoulders. Just as important? It can actually help your body defend against germs.
That's because chronic stress can make you more susceptible to getting sick — from COVID-19 or any other nasty bug. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase inflammation and decrease infection-fighting immune cells, both of which can make you more vulnerable to germs, Dr. Posina says.
And the effect is measurable. When researchers gave healthy adults nasal drops containing a common cold virus, subjects who reported high levels of emotional stress were twice as likely to become sick compared to those who weren't very stressed out, found a study published April 2012 in PNAS.
It's hard for anyone to feel 100 percent relaxed about the current situation and what might happen if you get sick. But with a little work, you can get your anxieties down to a more manageable level. Some smart strategies to try:
1. Be Proactive About Prevention
Take comfort in knowing that you're doing the things we know can help prevent the spread of germs and lower your risk for getting sick — including wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and washing your hands regularly. "You shouldn't be worrying 24/7 if you're protecting yourself with the proper precautions," Dr. Posina says.
Also? Keep up with your regular doctor appointments and resist the urge to cancel routine visits. Even though COVID-19 might be your first concern, staying on top of your health overall helps you stay in the best possible shape and can reduce your chance for getting seriously sick.
2. Establish Boundaries
Find yourself obsessively doom-scrolling, watching the news or taking your temperature? Setting limits gives your brain space to think about something else so it's not constantly on alert.
Decide that you'll only watch the news for 20 minutes a day, say, or only check your family's temperatures at certain times per day, like in the morning and at night, Appleton suggests. And let everyone know about your plan.
"Telling someone else out loud holds you accountable," she says.
3. Carve Out Time Every Day to Do What You Love
"If you love reading, for instance, set a timer for 20 minutes, shut off your phone, and just read," Appleton says.
4. Be Physically Active
Basic self-care measures like exercising regularly can go a long way towards helping you feel your best, Dr. Posina says. In fact, just five minutes of aerobic activity can have an anxiety-squashing effect, according to the ADAA.
If you can work out outdoors, all the better. Not only will it help fight feelings of cabin fever from spending more time at home, but nature's a proven mood-booster, too.
Try These Workouts
When You Should Call a Doctor
Everyone's stress baseline is a little higher these days. That said, there's a point where the anxiety can start to feel crushing. When that happens, it's worth seeing a mental health expert.
Your fear radar might be dialed up too high if you find yourself constantly looking up information about COVID-19 (or any health concern), if reading news stories is making you anxious or if you find yourself frequently worrying about being sick even though you feel fine (and haven't knowingly been exposed to an infected person), according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Another big clue? Your anxiety is intense enough that it's interfering with your everyday life, Appleton says.
Yes, our daily routines have changed a lot this year and there are some activities — like gathering in large groups, especially indoors or for extended periods — that experts recommend steering clear of.
But if you find yourself, say, checking your temperature multiple times a day or family members or friends are getting annoyed because you're constantly worrying about being sick, that could be a problem. Often, a therapist or psychologist can help you learn how to put your fears into perspective with treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy, according to the ADAA.
And of course, check in with your doctor if you do start feeling under the weather physically. Symptoms like fever, congestion, coughing or fatigue are generally mild and don't require treatment, but your doc will probably recommend getting a COVID-19 test. And if you have trouble breathing, chest pain, bluish lips or confusion, seek medical attention ASAP, Dr. Posina says.
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- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: "Health Anxiety: What It is and How to Beat It"
- PNAS: "Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Always worried about your health? You may be dealing with health anxiety disorder"
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: "Health Anxiety"