How to keep coronavirus fears from affecting your mental health

Updated 10:03 AM ET, Sat March 14, 2020

(CNN)Coronavirus! Yes, it's a serious situation, and yes, it deserves your vigilance and attention.

But the constant spring of information, precautions and warnings, whether it's straight from the CDC or some recirculated, dubiously-sourced post on Facebook, can take a real toll on your mental health.
When does caution become overreaction? When does staying informed cross the line into, well, too much information?
The good news is, there is a happy medium between willfully ignoring the biggest story in the world right now, and going into a full-on panic. Here are some tips. Think of it like hand-washing and social distancing, but for your brain.

Pare down your sources of information

"There is a ton of information out there. The challenge is trying to determine which information is accurate." says Lynn Bufka, Associate Executive Director for Research and Policy at the American Psychological Association. She suggests taking control of your intake through the following steps:
  • Find a few sources you trust and stick with them. Choose one national or international source like the CDC, and another local nor national source so you can know what's going on in your community.
  • Limit the frequency of your updates. Things may be changing rapidly, but that doesn't mean you need to hang on every update. Think of it this way: If there is a tornado coming your way, you need information as soon as possible. The coronavirus is not a tornado. This may mean disabling constant notifications from news sites or social media.
  • Know when to walk away. "Try to get used to not knowing every little thing, and feeling okay with uncertainty," says Bufka. She recommends getting your phone off your person so you're not tempted to check it. Bufka says she leaves her phone on a charging station when she gets home so it's not constantly with her, beckoning with new information.
  • Practice social media self discipline. No, it's not easy to limit time on social media. But chances are, the churn of information and commentary you get from friends and acquaintances on your Facebook feed is more incessant than actual updates from news or health organizations. Bufka recommends uninstalling social media apps so it's harder to get to the content, or using tools to limit your aimless scrolling.

Name your fears

A pandemic is a rather abstract villain, so it may help to sit down and really consider what specific threats worry you. Do you think you will catch the coronavirus and die? "The fear of death taps into one of our core existential fears," says Bufka. "But you have to think about what your fear is, and how realistic it is." Consider your personal risk and how likely it is that you will actually come in contact with the virus.
And, even if your greatest fear is realized and you or someone you love does fall ill, you may not have really thought about what comes next. Yes, you may get it. Yes, you may need treatment. But in all likelihood, hope is still not lost. "We tend to overestimate the likelihood of something happening, and we tend to underestimate our capacity to deal with it," Bufka says.
Of course, you could have other, more practical fears. "Some people may worry about what would happen if they were moved into self quarantine, or if they're not able to work. They're wondering if they would have access to groceries or childcare," says Bufka. "Again, people have greater abilities to manage hardships than they think they do. Think about a plan. Consider options if you can't telework. Do you have savings? Do you have support?" Being prepared for your fears will help keep them in scale.

Think outside yourself

Since action can allay our anxieties, you may want to also consider what you can do to help others who may be more affected by the outbreak than you. Service workers, medical workers, hourly workers and people in the restaurant or entertainment industries may have their livelihoods paralyzed or have to put themselves in disproportionate danger. "It will be important for us as communities to think about how to support these individuals whose lives are going to be disrupted," Bufka says. "How can we even this burden and support those who have less options?"
After all, most of the precautions put in place to help stall the spread of the virus aren't just for you, as an individual. They're intended to keep entire communities and vulnerable demographics safe. Doing the same with your own time and care can empower you to see the real effects of the situation, rather than your abstract fears.

Seek support, but do it wisely