Coronaphobia: Covid anxiety has a name. Here’s how to cope.

Coronaphobia: Covid anxiety has a name. Here’s how to cope.

We’re living in a time when every little cough, sniffle, olfactory or circulatory problem can elicit a knee-jerk bout of worry: Is this the beginning of covid-19? For some people, however, it’s more than a fleeting concern: Experts say and research shows that the pandemic has triggered a surge in health anxiety. In fact, health anxiety related to the coronavirus has been given its own name: coronaphobia.

“People are very concerned and anxious about getting covid,” says Lynn Bufka, a senior director at the American Psychological Association and a practicing licensed clinical psychologist in Maryland. “We should all have some kind of heightened vigilance about protecting ourselves, but for some people, [the anxiety] is out of proportion to the actual risk and generally disrupts life.”

Health anxiety is defined as worries and anxiety that relate to a perceived threat to your health. It exists on a continuum and can be a facet of several psychiatric illnesses, including hypochondriasis (now called illness anxiety disorder).

“Health anxiety relates to the belief that bodily sensations or changes are due to some disease process,” says Gordon Asmundson, a professor of psychology at the University of Regina in Canada and co-author with Steven Taylor of “It’s Not All in Your Head: How Worrying about Your Health Could Be Making You Sick — and What You Can Do About It.” During such viral outbreaks as the coronavirus, for example, people with high health anxiety may misinterpret post-exercise muscle aches or a bout of coughing as telltale signs that they’re infected, which in turn increases anxiety and can bring on stress-related symptoms.

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Coronaphobia: Covid anxiety has a name. Here’s how to cope.

Although having some anxiety about your health is beneficial, because it can motivate you to take smart steps to protect it — such as wearing a mask, maintaining social distance and frequently washing your hands — too much can tilt the balance into troublesome territory. “People with excessive levels of health anxiety engage in lots of checking behaviors, such as taking their pulse or temperature, or they engage in reassurance-seeking and often go from doctor to doctor seeking reassurance,” explains Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia. “Reassurance can be like a drug of addiction. It can perpetuate the problem.”

Health anxiety also can lead people to frequently search the Internet to see if their symptoms match whatever illness they’re afraid they might have. “That’s a real problem, because Dr. Google will pop up with scary diagnoses or things that could be wrong,” Taylor says. “It’s going down a rabbit hole: You check one thing, and that can lead you to another, and you can end up scaring yourself even more.” Research has found that people have a tendency to engage in disease-related “query escalation” during Internet searches, which can cause health anxiety to build.