Coping with COVID-19 anxiety and fears

When COVID-19 cases initially spread in communities across the country, a familiar scene played out in the supermarket. Aisles housing bottled water or toilet paper were empty. Stores were sold out of essential items. But experts weren't telling people to go out and shop. Their message has been clear: Follow the proper prevention protocols.
Frank Fortunati, MD, JD, vice chief of psychiatry at Yale New Haven Hospital, said the urge to stock up on supplies during a crisis happens because people are looking to regain a sense of control during an uncertain time.

“When you fear something, you want to do something about that fear and you want to take control of your situation,” he said. 

Dr. Fortunati said it’s natural for anxieties to rise. But instead of trying to take control by buying bottles of water people should channel that anxiety in productive ways, by following the advice of experts. Wash your hands for 20 seconds or more, don’t touch your face and avoid large crowds. 


Parents already stressed about COVID-19 face the added pressure of explaining the news to their children. A constant stream of information on social media or from unreliable sources doesn’t help. But instead of avoiding the topic entirely, Dr. Fortunati said parents can turn fear into a teaching moment. 

“Kids really want to know that the adults around them are in control and can keep them safe. And you can help to enlist your kids into this effort by making sure they’re hand washing appropriately. Maybe if there’s an elderly individual that you want to help to care for, they can help to bring food and groceries to that individual,” Dr. Fortunati said.

Kids express themselves in different ways, and sometimes they don’t voice their fears at all. Very young children might not know what’s happening unless the TV is on all the time at home. 

Older children will mirror their parents’ anxieties. For example, they might refuse to go out in public. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), other warning signs include unexplained headaches or pains, unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, poor performance in school and irritability. Parents can support their children by sharing the facts and reminding them about the help that’s available.

While COVID-19 is causing anxiety for some, others may not be worried at all. Dr. Fortunati said that’s normal, because everyone responds to a crisis in their own way, often shaped by their unique experiences. Those of us who already tend to worry, will become more anxious, while those that tend to be a bit more fearless may minimize the risk and take unnecessary chances. Ideally, there needs to be a balance between these two extremes.

“It’s important to recognize that we all have these different backgrounds and respect that someone who seems less anxious or less concerned is being informed by their own past,” Dr. Fortunati said. 

The most important thing is to follow COVID-19 prevention and stay up to date with the facts.

Questions about COVID-19? Call 833-ASK-YNHH (833-275-9644).

Yale New Haven Health is offering a call center for patients and the community who have questions about COVID-19. Healthcare and human resources professionals from the Health System and University are available to answer your specific questions 7 days a week, 7 am – 7 pm. 

More information on coronavirus is also available from Yale New Haven Health and the CDC