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Hit by Coronavirus Panic? Look for Data Not Drama, Experts Say

By
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, March 16, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Are you scared and confused over the threat of coronavirus? You're not alone: Every day, every hour, new media reports can have you worrying about worst-case scenarios.

Experts say panic is a natural -- if unhelpful -- response to major crises like COVID-19. But there are ways to stay both informed and calm.

It's not always easy, acknowledged psychologist Roxane Silver.

"One of the most stressful aspects of this outbreak is the uncertainty and ambiguity that surrounds transmission," said Silver, who's professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine.

"Because individuals can apparently spread the virus without exhibiting any symptoms, the threat is invisible, and anyone can be a carrier of disease," she noted.

So the unease folks feel "is normal and appropriate," she said. But it can also tip over into panic, and media is often key to that, Silver believes.

Sources matter

"What is likely to be unhealthy is the spreading of rumors and misinformation, which often creep in during uncertain periods," she said. For many, endless cycling through cable news or reading specious posts on Facebook can prove harmful, not helpful.

Instead, people should proactively "seek out information from authoritative sources," she said, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), or your local department of health.

Both the CDC and WHO "have websites that are updated regularly and are informed by the best science we have available about this outbreak," Silver noted. "Both websites provide guidance on how to protect oneself from infection."

And the good news from those trusted information sources: "Most individuals will experience mild or no [COVID-19] symptoms, and will recover without long-term consequences," Silver said.

That thought was seconded by Emanuel Maidenberg, director of cognitive-behavioral therapy with the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

"It's very important to get access to balanced information, like what you can find at the WHO, CDC or a department of health site," he said.

"Those are sources that offer you data," Maidenberg explained. "They give you specific numbers and facts, without becoming engaged with offering interpretations of those facts, which means that they can give you an accurate sense of what's going on without causing you to become automatically panicked and scared, which is neither helpful nor necessary."

Data, not graphic images

Maidenberg also agreed that it's probably a good idea to cut back on TV news.

"Media tends to call attention to itself by focusing on the most dramatic and inflammatory information out there. It's a skewed source, because TV news tends to catastrophize developments," he said.

"On an intellectual and psychological level, that's the kind of information we tend to remember -- the most stressful information, which is more likely to drive me into a distressed state," Maidenberg said.

Also, Silver recommended avoiding "speculative stories and unconfirmed reporting." Stop watching gruesome reports that rely on frightening visuals instead of new information. In the case of coronavirus, such visuals might include panning shots of emptied-out cities or hordes of face-masked travelers.

Finally, Maidenberg said that "it's important to distinguish between the nature of the threats we face. On the one hand, there is a threat to the system -- meaning the medical system -- which may not be ready for an overwhelming inflow of patients, if we get to that point. That is really an unknown, and it's understandable that there would be real and broad anxiety about this."

But, he added that people should "distinguish that from the level of personal threat, and how we cope with that anxiety."

Maidenberg urged people to calmly ask themselves, "How much danger am I in myself?"

For most people, "I think that the personal threat for each one of us remains very low, or fairly low and limited," Maidenberg said.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about coronavirus.

SOURCES: Roxane Cohen Silver, Ph.D., professor, department of psychological science and department of medicine, program in public health, University of California, Irvine; Emanuel Maidenberg, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychiatry, and director, cognitive behavioral therapy, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, University of California, Los Angeles

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