[OPINION] I’m a psychologist – here’s how I manage my worries about the coronavirus

Ronald Del Castillo
[OPINION] I’m a psychologist – here’s how I manage my worries about the coronavirus
'Our individual worries about the virus is normal but can hurt others'

Are you checking your social media feed for coronavirus updates – a lot? Did you buy toilet paper or rubbing alcohol more than you need? Are you wondering if you counted 20 seconds when washing your hands but forgot and so decided to start all over again? Are you giving the evil eye to that woman who didn’t cover her mouth when she coughed? Did you flinch when she coughed? If you’re fearful of catching the coronavirus, you’re not alone.

My training as a clinical psychologist gave me the hands-on understanding of human behavior, including individual disorders. However, it was my training in public health, especially health policy, and later in psychiatric epidemiology that gave me the bird’s eye view of how policy interventions at the sociocultural and systems levels can improve our mental health and wellbeing as a population.

Our individual worries about the virus is normal but can hurt others. We might feel some relief that we got a whole box of rubbing alcohol, but we forget that others need to clean their hands, too, for us to be protected. (READ: ‘Customer not always right’: Alcohol hoarders should be sent out of stores, says DTI)

Here are some ways I manage my own worries.

Yes, I am worried.

I admit to myself that I am nervous. I can feel a sense of impending panic. I am overthinking what may or may not happen. I am presenting at a conference in Tokyo later this month. Should I go? I was just invited to another one in Singapore in July. It might be better by then, right? My body feels tense. (READ: Questions Filipinos are asking about the coronavirus lockdown)

When I acknowledge these thoughts and feelings, I am able to manage the worries better and shift my attention towards something healthier.

I know my strengths and vulnerabilities.

There is a lot we do not yet know about the coronavirus. Older people and people with severe underlying health conditions – like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease – are at higher risk for the more serious symptoms of the illness. 

So, I do feel some relief (though cautious) of my own risks. I am only in my late 30s, and according to a recent doctor’s visit, I seem to be in good health, although truth be told, I need to lose a bit of weight.

I am not immune to the virus, of course. It does not discriminate. But even the most basic information offers me some relief.

I get my news updates – and then don’t.

I only watch the news in the morning (before work) and at the end of the day (but not before bed). I might watch again in the middle of the day. I also watch at most the first 10-15 minutes and only at the top of the hour, when the most recent updates are likely to be broadcast. Then, I stop watching.

The news tends to recycle. It is the same every hour. The more I watch, the more I needlessly worry.

I limit my social media use.

I follow and rely on two sources – the Philippine Department of Health (DOH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) Philippines. That’s it, no one else. You and many others (including this news organization) will post, share, like, etc., many other information, including those posted by the DOH and WHO. They will end up in my feed. For me, these are not helpful because you will have reinterpreted the original message in one way or another. They’re “noise.”

I also deliberately unfollow 10 people (though we’re still “friends”) from my social media accounts. I do this every day. This limits how much and what kind of information I see. And these days, we get a lot of virus-related information. More details and statistics, more worries. I also turn off the comments or notifications. I rarely respond to comments, even positive ones. (READ: Staying compassionate in the time of coronavirus)

I do not share or like others’ posts regarding the virus. I do not want to add to the anxiety-focused algorithm. 

My worries are softened with honest, simple, and forthright facts from reliable sources.

I reallocate my attention.

I become more anxious when I shift my attention to those things that are, well, anxiety-provoking, instead of those things that could offer me something more enjoyable or purposeful. I want to be more relaxed, but I am paying attention to things that don’t make me feel that way. So, the more helpful solution is to reallocate my attention.

According to the WHO, most people (about 80%) recover from the disease, and they don’t require special treatment. About 1 out of every 6 will develop serious symptoms, including difficulty breathing, but this also means 5 of them will not. Since the outbreak in December, the overwhelming majority of people have recuperated. Of the nearly 81,000 confirmed cases in China, nearly 62,000 have recovered. The odds seem to be in our favor.

I can choose to pay attention to the bad news and make myself miserable. Or I can shift that attention towards more hopeful things. I choose the latter, and I feel better.

And finally, I stick to routine.

I do what I did even before the outbreak, as safely as possible. I run in the mornings but probably not as close to people. I go to my favorite café but sit far away from others. The gym is less tempting these days, but there are a lot of online videos complete with attractive people who teach no-equipment workouts. Classes are suspended this week, but virtual learning is within reach – perhaps to the disappointment of my students. A lot of my work can be done remotely.

I wash my hands. I use rubbing alcohol. I keep a distance. I eat as healthy as I can and drink plenty of water. I watch streaming videos, read books, and plan trips. I stay in touch with friends and loved ones.

I take deep breaths and say, “This will pass. We will all be alright.” – Rappler.com

Dr Ronald Del Castillo is professor of psychology, public health, and social policy at the University of the Philippines Manila. The views here are his own.