How to cope with coronavirus stress -- without doomsday prepping

The U.S. now has more than 750 cases of coronavirus (COVID-19). As fear and anxiety spread, toilet paper aisles in grocery stores are barren, and viral videos show Costco members buying pallets of water and other essentials.

“At some level, it is a rational response because a disease is dangerous and you do need to be prepared, and practice good hygiene, and be ready to self-isolate for a while if needed. But we also overreact. So it's a mix of both -- what we are seeing now,” says Norbert Schwarz, psychology professor at USC and Co-Director of the Dornsife Mind and Society Center. 

How should you handle the anxiety? 

Schwarz reiterates that you should practice good hygiene: “Wash your hands, wipe sinks down that are frequently touched, and keep some distance to others. Be careful with the hugging and the handshaking.”

He says if you’re young, healthy, and have no underlying health problems, then not much will happen to you. However, you can show no symptoms but still bring home the virus: “You may feel fine, but you can bring it home to grandma, and kill grandma along the way.”

Schwarz says the risk is real, but panicking hinders your ability to do what’s reasonable. “Calm down. Watch a little bit less news about the sensational moments of the coronavirus. And spend your time actually preparing and keeping things under control.”

Fear amplifies your risk perception 

“When the world feels like a dangerous place because, let's say, of a disease, suddenly other things feel dangerous too. When we’re fearful, it's very difficult to tease apart what are we scared about, and what do we not have to be scared about,” Schwarz says. 

He gives the example of the swine flu pandemic 10 years ago. In an experiment, Americans were asked how dangerous certain things were.  For example, how likely are you to get sick this year, or get a heart attack, or die of a crime? 

“The rational thing was to say, ‘Well, it's very likely I’ll get sick. We have swine flu going around.’ But every risk went up. People even believed they're more likely to be a victim of crime, which had nothing to do with the swine flu,” explains Schwarz. 

“It’s just the minute you feel fearful, fear knows no limits, and a lot of stuff seems dangerous that has not changed in threat,” he says. 

Isolation can exacerbate the stress

Authorities are advising people to avoid large gatherings, such as sporting events, theaters, concerts, and festivals. However, being around others is a way to feel happy. So are these public health guidelines making us more psychologically unhealthy?

Schwarz says that’s absolutely right. “What we normally do when we're scared is we hang out with others. And now hanging out with others can become a risk. And so that's a problem.” 

He suggests you can still hang out with people, just don’t hug and shake everyone’s hands, and do keep some distance. 

“You can definitely watch movies. But perhaps not in the movie theater. Stream it at home. You can hang out with others by chatting with them on the phone without any problem -- even if they're already infected, it won't do you anything,” he advises. 

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin