How to combat COVID, flu anxiety this winter

If you’re feeling sick, ‘Just go get a COVID test,” one expert says, rather than jumping to conclusions and possibly worrying needlessly.

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As the U.S. opens up while still in the midst of a pandemic, this winter is likely to see the return of colds and the flu, along with continuing COVID-19 cases.

As the U.S. opens up while still in the midst of a pandemic, this winter is likely to see the return of colds and the flu, along with continuing COVID-19 cases.

So you’ve woken up with a sore throat. Or sneeze. Or cough. Don’t jump to the worst-case scenario.

As the U.nited States opens up while still in the midst of a pandemic, this winter is likely to see the return of colds and the flu along with continuing instances of COVID-19.

Symptoms we once might have glossed over as just flu now could indicate something worse — which isn’t the most comforting concept. 

“Getting sick now means a possible serious sick — it’s not just, ‘I’m going to stay home because I have a slight cold or a flu,’ “ says Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a family psychotherapist in New York City. “The flu-like symptoms are very much like the COVID symptoms, and our minds [can] go to the worst possible scenario instead of just being able to calm ourselves down and take it one step at a time. … There is the unknown, and the unknown is always a scary thing.” 

Medical professionals say precautions such as getting vaccinated and wearing masks indoors still need to be taken to keep safe.

Mental health experts are also highlighting a need to find ways to self-soothe heading into winter, which typically sees an influx of illnesses spreading as people spend more time indoors and travel for holidays. 

“The first two steps that everybody ought to take are pretty obvious, and that is that you should get immunized against COVID, and you should get your flu vaccine,” says Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Beyrer says “people are right to be concerned” and should stay vigilant about wearing masks and seeking medical attention in case of shortness of breath. 

“But also people should also focus on the things that really make them happy and help them cope,” he says. 

Last year, flu reached the lowest numbers since the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recording them in 1997. 

Beyrer says the “non-vaccine preventative measures” taken last year, such as quarantining, mask-wearing and social distancing, played a part in those low numbers.

This year, vaccines and mask mandates have improved things, but he says too few people have been vaccinated to declare the country out of the woods.

“We really strongly encourage people who can stay home to stay at home,” Beyrer says. “Obviously, it’s good to know if you have influenza. It’s really important to know if you have COVID.” 

When in doubt, the CDC, epidemiologists and primary care doctors or nurse practitioners are solid sources to reach out to with questions. 

Prior to the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon to go to work or school despite being sick. COVID has changed that — those who are sick need to stay home as much as possible, experts say. 

Working from home has also caused some people to feel they need to work through sickness.

Smerling says it’s important if you’re sick to allow yourself to be sick and to take care of yourself to get better. Getting outside, watching a movie or TV show and reaching out to loved ones are important parts of slowing down and practicing self-care. 

“I think that’s a profound lesson that we have learned from the pandemic: that it’s OK to take your foot off” the gas,” she says. “It’s OK to to go inside and in reflect and take some time away from the frantic everyday world.” 

Ken Goodman, a licensed clinical social worker, board member for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and creator of “The Anxiety Solution Series” audio program, has clients who feel anxious about re-entering society amid the pandemic. 

Our minds are wired to protect us, Goodman says, which is helpful, say, in terms of fleeing danger.

In other situations, though, worrying about the worst-case scenario when symptoms don’t support that can cause needless anxiety. 

If you’re feeling sick, “Just go get a COVID test,” Goodman says. “Especially if you’ve been taking necessary precautions, there’s a good chance it’s just a cold or the flu. And it doesn’t do any good to panic before knowing the results.” 

We won’t have to think this way forever. The pandemic eventually will come under control, Beyrer says, with current projections estimating, though, that this might not happen until “well into 2022 or 2023,” after more of the world gets immunized. 

Continuing to follow public health guidelines and focus on taking care of one’s mental health are the best bets for now. 

“Be cautious,” Smerling says. “But don’t stop your life. Look for ways to connect. Connecting emotionally will make you feel better physically.” 


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