You’re the only one who can decide if something truly risks your health.

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There’s been quite a range of responses as the United States continues to grapple with COVID-19.

On one extreme, some Americans treat the deadly virus as a hoax, despite scientific evidence of its impact. We’ve seen many people crowding beaches, discarding masks, and carrying on with the way they used to live pre-pandemic.

Studies show that this extreme behavior only contributes to the problem at hand. Masks, physical (social) distancing, and proper sanitization are the only ways we can manage the spread of the virus before we get the vaccine.

For the nonbelievers, though, there’s no worry.

On the other side of the scale are the people who understand the risk of this virus. These are people who are more susceptible to it or who have seen firsthand just how much short- and long-term damage this illness can do.

Aside from these polarizations is another dilemma: How do you know if you’re being too cautious of COVID-19?

Since the start of the pandemic, more and more Americans (and people around the world) are experiencing severe symptoms of anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This is especially true for people who already struggled with a fear of illness before the outbreak, either due to mental health conditions like anxiety, phobias, and obsessive compulsive disorder, or because they’re considered at high risk for COVID-19.

Experts are studying the spike in what they call “health anxiety,” which often makes people feel more aware and anxious of minor symptoms that may or may not be a result of the virus.

With health anxiety, you might flashback to that sniffle you heard on the subway the other day and worry. You might wonder if the symptoms of your chronic health condition are making it hard to detect whether you have COVID-19.

You might feel paranoid or “crazy.” This is an ableist slur that’s been going around to describe everyone who’s worried about the spread of the virus. You might doubt yourself constantly about whether you’re taking the right precautions.

In these situations, we find ourselves asking the same questions over and over again:

  • What if I have to return to school or work and it’s unsafe?
  • What if the grocery store hasn’t sanitized properly?
  • What if one of my family members is asymptomatic and spreads the virus to me?
  • What will happen if I catch this?
  • How can I tell if my symptoms are from COVID-19 or something else?

One of the key strategies to challenging worrying thoughts is to look at the facts of the situation. How likely is it that your fears will come true?

For non-virus worries, this method can help to detect irrational thoughts and replace them with coping strategies.

But all these “what if” questions that come with pandemic anxiety are hard to challenge because, well, they’re not that outrageous.

Simply put, your fears about this virus are justified — you have every reason to be cautious.

These worries are sending signals to your brain to say, “Hey, you have to protect yourself! This is survival mode!” In this case, those messages zinging throughout your body might be right.

Yet as the country continues to open up, people return to work and school, and social events become more relaxed, it’s normal to wonder if your worries stem from the actual risk of COVID-19 or if they’re coming from a nonconstructive place.

Assessing the facts of certain situations will help you to understand when your caution is coming from real risk rather than the anxiety of risk.

The CDC recommends staying up to date with the latest numbers of cases in your specific county so that you can track when and where outbreaks are detected. It’s also important to stay away from false media reports that play into the two extremes we discussed earlier.

Fact-checking through the CDC and other approved, peer-reviewed sources can help you to understand the actual risk of certain activities like grocery shopping or going back to work.

Let’s explore a scenario as an example. In this situation, imagine that your friends ask you to have a physically distanced hangout for the first time since the shutdown. You’re excited to see your friends, but you’re incredibly nervous about the risk of being exposed to the virus.

If you’re able, find a way to make a list of the facts of the situation on paper or using adaptive technology. It might look something like this:

  • Fact 1: The hangout will take place outside, with chairs placed at least 6 feet away from one another.
  • Fact 2: Everyone will wear a mask and avoid touching and sharing food or utensils, and they’ll use hand-washing practices at regular intervals.
  • Fact 3: One of your friends is an essential worker who interacts with the public on a daily basis but doesn’t have any symptoms of COVID-19. Still, you recognize that many people with this virus are asymptomatic.
  • Fact 4: You aren’t at high risk for COVID-19 and don’t live with anybody who is.
  • Fact 5: The number of cases in your town hasn’t increased in the past 2 weeks.

Once you’re able to see all of the facts about the situation in front of you, you’ll be able to assess the true risk of the situation and decide if this activity is safe, or at least the safest it can be.

It’s completely normal and expected to have worries. The downside is that anxiety can cloud your view of the facts.

The anxiety of risk often presents itself as “what if” questions, spiraling or snowballing thoughts, obsessions or fixations surrounding a situation, rituals to temporarily ease the worries, and general mental health discomfort.

Though you want to make sure you’re staying safe from the actual risk of the virus, you might try some therapeutic techniques to help challenge the worry thoughts, such as:

In these times, it often feels safer and easier to self-isolate, but retreating from society tends to make depression and anxiety worse.

If you’re unable to safely socialize, consider virtual hangouts, chatrooms, online video games, and support groups for people who are also struggling to work through their fear.

Symptoms of anxiety can be scary, severe, and difficult to treat during this time in particular. These symptoms include:

  • stomachaches
  • headaches
  • persistent worrying
  • feeling “on edge”
  • changes in sleep patterns
  • worsening depression
  • thoughts of suicide

If you experience thoughts of suicide, reach out for help immediately through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255 or using other relevant resources.

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Ultimately, you’re the only one who can decide whether an activity truly risks your health. Even if the physical reality of risk isn’t there, it’s not worth sacrificing your mental health.

Even if what you’re experiencing is “just” anxiety, it doesn’t mean that your concerns should be discarded.

Be sure to seek mental health help from a therapist to learn more tricks and tips on how to manage these pandemic-related worries.

Aryanna Falkner is a disabled writer from Buffalo, New York. She’s an MFA-candidate in fiction at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she lives with her fiance and their fluffy black cat. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Blanket Sea and Tule Review. Find her and pictures of her cat on Twitter.