Have you found yourself too afraid to leave the house because you might catch the flu? Do the flu-based headlines cause your anxiety to spike? Has your worry about getting the flu moved beyond funny social media posts into a problem that affects your daily life? You are not alone. This year’s flu season is scary. The flu can and does kill people, and even when it doesn’t, it’s miserable: the fever, the body aches, the coughing, the fatigue. For those of us with clinical anxiety, having the flu can add another layer of misery by increasing anxiety symptoms, which makes the flu feel worse, which increases the anxiety symptoms…you get the picture. Even people who aren’t clinically anxious can find themselves stressed by the dire warnings and the physical symptoms of the flu.
We spoke with New York clinical psychologist Thomas Knudsen, Psy.D., about why the flu increases anxiety and what you can do about it.
Hello Giggles (HG): The constant, dire news of the flu this year has definitely caused me to change plans and worry excessively when I’ve been out in public. What can people do if they feel like their worry about catching the flu is going beyond a reasonable level of caution?
Dr. Knudsen: Precaution is always necessary around flu season, but popular news typically sensationalizes epidemics, which can trigger anxious responses. Avoidance is a natural response to anxiety, but not always the best response. Educate yourself on the basic prevention for the spread of influenza. If fear of becoming infected is causing distress and affecting your daily routine, then it probably has gone beyond the reasonable level of caution.
A healthy adult’s immune system is a powerful defense against influenza. If worry has become phobic or anxious, first try to use simple “thought challenging” by reminding yourself of the general precautions to inflections and how it is transmitted. Practicing these basic preventative techniques helps you feel better in control and will hopefully reduce the initial response of total avoidance. If you are a healthy adult, you can also remind yourself that you have had the flu in the past, and you can survive it again if you become infected.
HG: I’ve noticed that when people do get the flu, others are quick to judge them for getting/not getting a flu shot, not washing their hands enough, etc. That definitely makes you feel worse. Besides avoiding social media, what can you do to keep from blaming yourself for getting the flu, and what are some more helpful ways we can interact with each other about the flu?
Dr. Knudsen: Attribution theory explains how often people determine causal relationships for behavior or events. Specifically, others will blame or “attribute” an internal cause (i.e. your mistake) for your illness. They feel you did something wrong to become infected. This allows them to feel somewhat less anxious that random things can happen to them — it must be the bad behavior of the person that allowed for the infection. In reality, there are a multiple reasons why people become infected.
Social pressures can exacerbate the use of attribution because we seem to want to display a life that is without problems — especially on social media. Dismissing the judgements of others is the primary protection of that and perhaps knowing about attribution theory can help a person dismiss this judgement. Perhaps this can also help one from blaming his or herself. The flu happens, so don’t allow this strange twist of logic to self-blame. When talking to others about the flu, keep in mind our tendency to attribute blame on others rather than the reality that it spreads easily. Support your family and friends, encourage them to take time off of work or school to care for themselves (and to avoid spreading the flu to others). I ask my patients not to come to session if they are infected, and I cancel my sessions when I have become infected. This helps reduce the spread to others and forces us to do some self-care.
HG: What are some ways to recover your mental health as you recover physically from the flu? (I’m thinking of the depression that can descend after any long illness or the anxiety caused by returning to a giant mountain of work you are now behind on.)
Dr. Knudsen: Post-illness stress is inevitable. However, this may be a time to be more self-reflective. Why is it that we cannot have a few days of unscheduled downtime without feeling as though we are drowning in backed-up work? Perhaps we are not allowing for enough self-care and pace in our life to allow for something like this. In other words, we are overworking and not using productive time management. Granted, many may not have a choice. For example, parents of young children will feel very behind on housework after a long illness. Whether it is a stressful job or parenting, the expectations should change and a person needs to give themselves permission to allow more time in order to get caught up on work. Giving yourself “permission” to be disorganized, messy, or late is the key. I would bet that the busy person who feels behind will find that much of their “busyness,” either at home or at work, is not as necessary as they thought.
A depressed mood also happens during times of illness. This is caused by the simple exhaustion from the illness that can trigger negative self-thoughts. Perhaps much of a person’s self-image is tied to their job or social station. When the illness keeps them from that, the self-image easily deflates when they are not getting the external props. Add in the exhaustion from the illness, and we have a good recipe for a depressed mood. Many who experience this type of temporary depression will soon feel better once they have recovered from their illness and are back in the daily routine.
HG: Is there any other advice you can give?
Dr. Knudsen: Getting sick is a part of life. If we find ourselves phobic of illness, germs, or hardships in general, then we are ultimately fearful of living. Nevertheless, if these steps and methods mentioned above do not reduce the anxieties or depression around illness, then professional help is the next step. Illness and sickness phobia (called somatic symptom disorder) is easily treated with cognitive behavioral therapy and medication therapy.
If this flu season is messing with your mental health, you’re not alone. We hope this advice will motivate you to get the help you need — because sometimes the flu requires more than bed rest and cough syrup.