Retrain your brain

Anxiety from the news: A psychologist explains how to cope with it in 2020

Coping with stress caused by the news cycle is manageable if we know how to address it.

A woman that needs to learn how to cope with anxiety in 2020 posing with a face mask
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Dr. Lynn Bufka is a clinical psychologist and senior director of practice research and policy at the American Psychological Association, and has expertise in the intersections between anxiety, stress, and cultural issues.

I spoke with her about how to manage one’s own anxiety when the news cycle is especially stressful, the importance of remembering what’s realistic, and how to be mindful of one’s health when you’re afraid of getting sick.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

If people are already naturally anxious, can large news events exacerbate that?

One of the features of anxiety is that it’s a response to things that we see as a potential threat, a possible danger, or an unknown. Anxiety can be a normal reaction, and it’s actually kind of healthy for us to feel anxious in certain situations because it often motivates us to figure out how to respond and act in a way that will be beneficial.

The challenge is that if we start perceiving everything as threats — everything as an uncertainty — we can get stuck in the feeling of anxiousness and fear. So if someone is already more prone to being anxious, and they’re faced with an uncertain event or potential threat, the response will likely be that they’ll feel more anxious.

Because anxiety is linked to evaluating threats, can news events that are linked to health — like the coronavirus — act as a trigger for anxiety?

It depends on the situation and the person, but health can be a trigger for some individuals. Certain situations act as triggers for different individuals. For instance, someone who is particularly concerned about finances is going to feel especially anxious if they hear news that the stock market is dropping. So for somebody who is already somewhat anxious about health, to then learn health news that is a little harder to understand, a little harder to digest, and has lots of unknowns, then that would naturally be something that person would feel anxious about.

Why are people so much more worried about the coronavirus compared to the flu? Does it come back down to that fear of the unknown?

Right. I think that’s a really important question. For most of us, the flu is something that we have known about from our lives — we may have personal experience with having the flu or know someone else who has been affected. Most people’s experience with the flu is that if they get it, they feel miserable, and then they recover.

However, a substantial number of people do die from the flu every year in the US. But when we look at the data, which suggests that the flu is highly transmissible, it can seem somewhat abstract compared to our personal experience with the flu, which indicates it’s not that big of a deal.

Whereas, when it comes to the coronavirus, the data we have right now is not complete. We know it’s transmissible. We know that the symptoms range, and we have no idea what our own experiences will be in relation to it. So, that can sort of set up the potential for imagining the worst outcomes.

Furthermore, if we don’t have personal experiences to balance out what the data can show, it requires a little mental effort on our part to research it out, understand it, and place it into context. And if we’re already feeling anxious, to do that requires more cognitive resources and is a bit more of a challenge.

Are there examples of actionable ways that people can manage excessive worry when it comes to their health?

In the instance of viral diseases, we can all do what’s recommended: Regular hand-washing, staying home when we are sick, and encouraging our ill colleagues to stay home.

What’s helpful but challenging is figuring out what your realistic risk is in reference to a particular situation. Ask yourself questions like: Have I done the kinds of things that are likely to mitigate that risk? Have I gotten a vaccine? Have I potentially been exposed to the illness?

Then it’s about feeling confident in the decision-making you have done. That’s hard. And if you’ve developed a cycle where you tend to respond to the potential for anxiety, that can become even more challenging. It requires some effort to learn a new way of thinking, which can enable you to accurately assess a situation, determine what’s realistic, and what is not possible.

Sometimes getting an accurate assessment of possibilities requires getting accurate health information from a professional. Sometimes it helps to talk to a friend of a family member. It requires developing different patterns of thinking through things, and feeling more comfortable with new ways of thinking.

Is it fair to say that outside sources can be the key to determining whether or not something is realistic, versus what your brain is telling you is realistic?

You hope to be able to retrain your brain to assess things realistically. But if you’ve got yourself in a pattern, where you tend to overemphasize the dangerous and potential bad outcomes, then it’s good to have an outside source that can give you the facts. That could be a health site that you trust, a healthcare professional, or even your best friend. It just needs to be a source that can provide you a little distance from your thinking.

The challenge of sorting through the facts, is that we tend to remember stories, not data. One is more likely to remember the story of a person who had a very bad experience, compared to the data that a certain number of people were sick then got better. So that’s a challenge that tests our cognitive bias and how we process information. We tend to remember the personal. It’s helpful to learn those stories when you are also struggling with something and seeking support. But sometimes that can lead to an unbalanced perspective on a situation.

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