Washing Hands and Worrying Less: Protecting Physical and Psychological Health from COVID-19

Mar 10, 2020

There have been four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kentucky, leaving many people concerned about the severity of the coronavirus threat and what they should do to protect themselves. Murray State professor of psychology, Dr. Michael Bordieri, visits Sounds Good to discuss basic tips for immunity-boosting and anxiety-relieving.

"First of all, it's important to note that I'm not a public health official," Bordieri begins. "I can't offer what most listeners want to know, which is what's going on and what's going to happen. We don't know what's going to happen."

"What I thought might be helpful today is to talk a little about things we can do to help with that uncertainty and to give us a sense of control and mastery of our environment. What are some of the things we can let go of, things that we do to try to help with the uncertainty but actually make things worse?"

Concerns over the severity of the COVID-19 threat can lead to fear and anxiety. The basic idea with anxiety, Bordieri explains, is to "focus on what we can control. Do the things you can do that help, and let go of the things that don't. So, what are things we can do right now? There, we want to look to our public health officials for guidance: the Center for Disease Control or the World Health Organization."

"There are some small but meaningful steps we can do, starting with simple things like washing your hands," Bordieri continues. "We all know this, we all know we should, and it turns out Americans are not so great at it. So what's the general rule? At least twenty seconds - that's Happy Birthday twice. You should be doing it many, many times a day. You can wash your hands too much, but you'd have to go really out of your way to do it. So more is probably better."

"Another simple thing is to stay at home if you're sick and not feeling well. Sometimes in our culture, we like to promote the idea of 'you're going to come into work no matter what' and be that hero that's always there. It turns out that actually makes us less safe when we do that. Staying home if you're sick is a way you can protect your coworkers, people you care about, and it's also a way you can take care of yourself."

"That's about it," Bordieri adds. "Other things like getting a flu vaccine if you haven't already can help. If you're still concerned that this might affect you and your life, doing some basic preparations like having at least a 30-day supply of prescription medication (or medication you take daily) [and] having a week or two supply of extra food and household essentials can help."

Washing hands and staying home when sick can help maintain physical health, but psychological health is just as important to consider, particularly in this time of uncertainty. In the case of mental health, Bordieri suggests that it might be more beneficial to make a list of what you should let go - things you can't do or things that only add undue stress. 

One way to promote psychological health is "being careful about information and how much attention you give this," Bordieri says. "Yes, this is a serious concern. We need to take it seriously and take those steps to help prepare. But it turns out with the advent of the internet and 24-hour media, you can live this - and only this - information in your life. At least at the point now, when we're talking about it, that doesn't seem to be healthy."

"With anxiety, we plan time to prepare and do the things you can do. But then, it might be time to unplug a bit and make sure that you're attending to other things in your life...having a balance of information you consume."

"Another to look out for is misinformation or exaggerated information," Bordieri adds. "There are lots of people with strong opinions on the internet. A lot of times, if you're looking for information you're concerned [about], you're going to find no end to information that concerns you. We call that the confirmation bias in psychology. In the same way, if someone's prone to not believe something is a threat, they can look for information about that and underestimate something. The best thing to do is seek out reliable sources of information like the Center for Disease Control or an NPR station [you can] trust to give you some balanced information about what's happening."

Finally, "make sure you're doing other things in your life...taking care of yourself. [Make sure you're] eating, sleeping, all the sorts of things that are central for our well-being. We don't want to put those on hold because of a possible threat. What that could do is actually lead to problems here and now. The best thing you can do for your psychological and physical health is to take care of yourself. Making sure that all the positive routines you build in your life, you're continuing them to the extent that they're helping you and keeping you healthy," Bordieri concludes.