Coronaphobia: Making Sense of COVID Fears Once More

Originally published on August 9, 2021

What is Coronaphobia?

There’s a COVID-related term gaining popularity these days, especially in scientific circles and journals: coronaphobia. In short, it’s defined as an excessive fear of COVID-19 and the adverse outcomes that could arise as a result of contracting the disease.

With the Delta variant spiking case rates in the US once more, I felt it necessary to talk about this term and outline ways by which we can continue to mitigate it.

If you’ve followed along, you’ll know we did a few of these kinds of posts, both this year and last. First, we discussed five effective ways to mitigate coronavirus anxiety. That was before this new term gained steam, of course.

Shortly thereafter, we followed up with a post on the one habit you must avoid to prevent coronavirus fears from getting the best of you. Once again, that was also before the emergence of the expression coronaphobia.

And, finally, in May of this year, we outlined four ways we could reframe our lingering corona fears as the world emerged from #lockdownLife and rolled back all forms of masking and social distancing mandates.

Now, it’s time to pull all that information together and create a guide for understanding and managing our newly named foe amidst case count increases and the uncertainty that inevitably comes with them.

Dissecting Phobias, In General

If we deconstruct our new term (coronaphobia), we find it has some things in common with many of the other unwanted conditions we encounter in the mental health realm. What I’m referring to specifically here is the second part of the word — phobia.

Thanks to our battles with anxiety, many of us are intimately familiar with this term already. We suffer from things like agoraphobia (fear of places or situations that might lead to panic or humiliation), social phobia (fear of interacting with others), and aerophobia (fear of flying) — just to name a few.

Thus, while the current subject of our anxiety is fairly novel, the concept is not. That means we can approach our new phobia and any other one in a relatively similar fashion.

But, first, we must ask: How does a phobia develop? Though the research isn’t necessarily cut-and-dry, most scientists believe these immense fears arise as the result of negative and frightening experiences.

For example, maybe we got separated from a parent at the grocery store when we were children, which terrified us and made us never want to return to the store again. If those feelings then lasted for a good portion of our lives, we could say we developed a phobia of the supermarket or places similar to it.

Why these debilitating fears sometimes emerge from such frightening experiences has to do with the concept of association and the structure and function of our brains. Since our encephala are primarily concerned with our survival, they’re constantly looking out for things that could harm us, either now or in the future.

When we undergo scary or traumatic experiences, our brains see these events and say, “The last time I went to Groceries N More, something horrible happened. So, maybe, I shouldn’t go there again. In fact, maybe I should avoid all other grocery stores in the future as well.” Though this approach might not always make sense to us, our brains would say we can’t be too careful when it comes to survival.

How Did We Get to Coronaphobia?

One of the things that makes a phobia a phobia is that it creates excessive fear in the person experiencing it. What that means is that not all of our everyday worries fall into such a category. For example, if we’re uneasy about boarding a plane, that’s a fairly rational fear. But if we’re unwilling to leave the house for days because we’re worried about running into old coworkers, it’s more than likely we’re experiencing a phobia.

When it comes to COVID-19, the line between rational fear and phobia is surprisingly thin. That’s because, unlike the average 2018 social interaction, the virus is a potential life or death matter. In other words, it’s very reasonable not to want to become infected or spread the disease to others.

But when does that rational fear morph into full-blown coronaphobia? That’s a good question and one that’s particularly tricky to answer, especially during a time when many of the laws in our cities and states are preventing us from living “normal life” in the first place.

By my estimations, however, we’re entering the realm of coronaphobia whenever our fears surrounding the virus far outpace what the current data and restrictions are telling us. For example, let’s assume our cities are experiencing an uptick in cases but haven’t yet brought back mask mandates.

In such a scenario, if we’re not comfortable going to an unmasked, crowded bar, that’s not phobia doing the talking — that’s a fairly reasonable fear. However, if, in the same situation, we’re unwilling to leave our houses for any reason, we’re more than likely in phobia territory.

Now, it goes without saying that we don’t all live in the same cities or consume the same information on the virus. That means we’re all going to approach it slightly differently. That said, many of us will still have a reaction to it that resembles coronaphobia. Why is that? I see two key reasons.

The first has to do with the simple fact that this is a mental-health-related blog. That means many folks reading this post have either encountered a phobia previously or regularly run patterns in their minds that make them susceptible to such massive fears. (Side note: if you are one of those people, you’re safe here — I’m right there with you).

The second reason revolves around the media we’ve been consuming on the virus. Again, though not all of us are following the same news outlets or sources, one thing’s for sure — many of us are bombarded by constant and negative COVID perspectives on a regular basis.

This sort of thing started way back when — in March of 2020. As the virus locked us all in our homes, we tuned in to our favorite news stations to get the latest stats, reports, and stories. And it wasn’t just a one-off or quick thing either. With an excess of time on our hands and a plethora of questions about the virus, we came back day after day, eager to hear what our pundits had to say.

And while it’s great to be informed, an excess of news rarely leads us anxiously-inclined folks anywhere good. That’s because, while there are, undoubtedly, some wonderful people in news organizations, the business model underlying them is one that runs counter to our mental health.

What I mean by that is, our news outlets operate on clicks and views. And do you know what keeps our attention better than almost anything else? The answer won’t surprise you, as you’re quite familiar with it already: fear.

Add enough frightening, virus-related information together, and, in time, you lay the groundwork for coronaphobia to emerge.

What Can We Do About Coronaphobia?

Of course, that’s not to say news outlets shouldn’t keep us abreast of the latest developments in the situation — they obviously should. But, just as there’s a thin line between fears and phobias surrounding COVID, there’s but a tiny difference between news outlets informing us of legitimate, negative stories and them inundating us with gloom and doom for the sole purpose of keeping us hooked.

Instead of attempting to decipher where that line lies, however, I want to move past it altogether. That leads me to this post’s final, important question. So, we know what coronaphobia is and how it might arise, but how, exactly, do we deal with it? The answer to that question, at least from me, comes in four parts.

The first part, as I’ve talked about in previous posts — involves turning off the news. Or, at the very least, seriously limiting our exposure to it. Let’s face it, we all know what’s going on out there. We don’t need another public figure to scare us into believing that another doomsday variant is right around the corner.

If we really feel the need to stay informed, I’d suggest Google’s COVID dashboard instead. To access that tool, all we have to do is type “covid cases” into Google / a Google search. From there, we’ll see all sorts of useful, customizable statistics, including infection counts from just about anywhere and over any timeframe. These statistics are all displayed on easy-to-read charts that quickly help us make sense of them.

If we look at these charts once a day, simply to get a sense of the current conditions surrounding our homes and offices, we’ll gather just about all the information we need with none of the toxic rhetoric our news outlets tend to administer. We can then use this information to determine if we should alter our behavior in the coming days (by masking up, avoiding large crowds, and so on).

The second part is to rely on protective measures and the guidance behind them — rather than our sensationalized news headlines — as best we can. That could mean a number of things. First, it could mean getting our COVID vaccines (assuming we don’t have them already) if we feel comfortable doing such a thing. The statistics show that having the vaccine drastically reduces the odds of infection, transmission, and death. Simply knowing we have such protection can do a great deal for our mental health.

Second, it might also mean bringing back our masks. Preferably a kind that actually provides some protection, like an N95. If you’re unsure of what to buy, I recommend (and use) these, just as an example.

Of course, not every county has reinstated its mask mandate, but that doesn’t mean we can’t wear them if we feel so inclined. We need to do whatever works for us. And when I say “works for us,” I don’t mean we lock ourselves in our bedrooms and let coronaphobia win. I mean that we get as close to real life as we can without constantly setting off our brains’ alarm systems.

The third part of our coronaphobia fighting strategy is something a bit more high-level. That said, many of you will find it familiar, especially if you’ve been following my content for a while. That tactic is to stop focusing on our fears surrounding the virus as best we can. I could discuss this one for days, but, given the already long length of this post, I’ll instead invite you to pick up my first book, where I talk about this idea extensively.

In that book, I make the case that obsessing over our problems rarely gets us anywhere. In fact, even though we’re convinced of such a strategy’s effectiveness, the more we ruminate on what makes us anxious, the more anxious we feel. That’s why, instead of continually rehashing our worries about the virus, we need to instead distract ourselves from them. (You’ll find lots of distraction ideas in my book as well.)

And, finally, the fourth part of our strategy revolves around a concept called exposure theory. In the medical world, this therapy is one of the main ways doctors assist patients in overcoming phobias.

In essence, the exposure process is all about helping patients (and their brains) eradicate old associations surrounding their fears and build new, more empowering ones. For example, for someone terribly afraid of spiders, a doctor might first start by putting his or her patient in the same room as a small arachnid just to show him or her that nothing terrible happens.

Then, over time, the doctor will gradually expose that person to larger and closer encounters with the spider, allowing him or her to slowly and steadily peel away painful past associations with these eight-legged creatures.

Now, when it comes to coronaphobia, I’m most definitely NOT saying we should expose ourselves to the virus. I’d imagine that’s fairly obvious already, but I just want to make it undeniably clear. What we should do, however, is gradually expose ourselves to more of the situations we’ve been avoiding as a result of COVID — albeit safely.

That could mean going to the grocery store, walking through the mall, or something entirely different. Only you can know what triggers your coronaphobia (assuming you’ve dealt with it before) and what sorts of situations you’d like to return to, in spite of it.

Over time — assuming the case numbers don’t reach levels where we really shouldn’t be leaving the house — doing so will allow us to see that it’s okay to engage in some of the simple things we once loved, despite what our phobias tell us. If we do such things for long enough (while remembering to stay safe), we’ll eventually rewire our nervous systems and reduce the power our coronaphobia has over us.

Thanks for reading. Comments? Questions? Feel free to write me in the box below.

**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2021

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