So you have woken up with a sore throat. Or sneeze. Or cough. Do not jump to the worst case scenario.
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 flu along with continued COVID-19 cases. The symptoms that we might once have gotten rid of now could indicate something worse – which is not the most comforting concept.
“Getting sick now means a possible serious illness – it’s not just ‘I stay home because I have a cold or a flu’,” says Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a family psychotherapist based in New York City. “The flu-like symptoms are very similar to the COVID symptoms, and our minds (can) go to the worst case scenario, instead of just being able to calm ourselves and take it one step at a time.… There is the unknown and the unknown is always a frightening thing. ”
Doctors stress that precautions such as getting vaccinated and wearing masks indoors still need to be taken to keep everyone safe. Mental health experts also highlight a need to find ways to calm themselves on the way into winter, which typically sees an influx of diseases spreading as people spend more time indoors and travel on vacation.
“The first two steps that everyone should take are pretty obvious, and that is that you need to be vaccinated against COVID and you should get your flu vaccine,” says Dr. Chris Beyrer, epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He notes that “people have a right to be concerned,” and should remain vigilant in 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 adds.
More:Is it safe to get a flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccine at the same time? Experts explain
Do not panic, but still take the pandemic seriously
Last year, influenza activity reached its lowest levels since the CDC began recording in 1997. Beyrer notes that the “non-vaccine prevention measures” taken at the time, such as quarantine, mask wearing and social distancing, played a role in these low numbers.
This year, vaccines and public mask mandates have improved things, but he notes that not enough of the U.S. population has been vaccinated to declare the country out of the woods yet. (Although forthcoming recommendations are expected this week from the CDC on COVID-19 vaccines for children 5-11 “will make a big difference,” he adds.)
“We are not out of this pandemic. We are really strongly encouraging people who can stay home to stay home,” Beyrer adds. “Obviously, it’s good to know if you have the flu. It’s really important to know if you have COVID.”
When in doubt, CDC professionals, epidemiologists, and primary care physicians, family physicians, or nurses are solid sources to listen to and reach out to with questions.
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If you are sick, give time for physical and mental rest
Before the pandemic, it was not uncommon to go to work or school despite being ill. COVID-19 has changed that – those who are sick should stay at home as much as possible, experts say.
Working from home has also made some employees feel that they need to work through illness. Smerling emphasizes the importance of allowing oneself to be sick, and to take better care of soothing and healing. Getting outside, watching a fun movie or TV show and reaching out to loved ones are important parts of slowing down and practicing self-care.
“I think it’s a deep lesson we’ve learned from the pandemic: that it’s okay to take your foot off the gas,” she says. “You’re still going to drive the car, but you’re not going to drive the car at 90 miles per hour. It’s OK to go in and reflect and take some time away from the hectic everyday world.”
Otherwise, allow yourself to – surely – live your life
Ken Goodman, a licensed clinical social worker, board member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and creator of the “The Anxiety Solution Series” audio program, works with several clients who feel anxious to re-enter the community in the midst of the pandemic.
“With COVID-19, there is a lot of uncertainty,” he notes. “And typically, when there is insecurity and people are worried, they resort to safety behaviors, they do things to keep themselves safe, whether it’s based on reality or not. (But) as long as you behave in an anxious “The only way to reduce the worry is to slowly reduce the anxious behavior.”
Goodman works with his clients to slowly abandon what he calls “safety behaviors” – practices that can make someone feel safe, but as doctors have said, do not further protect them from COVID-19, such as to wear a mask in the car alone, disinfect groceries in the garage before bringing them into the house, or take a shower immediately upon arrival home.
‘Exhaustion’, ‘frustration’: Why some vaccinated people lose the motivation to stay safe
Our minds are wired to protect us. Sometimes this is useful, such as the impulse to escape from an actively dangerous scene. In other situations, worrying about the worst case scenario can cause unnecessary anxiety when the symptoms do not indicate that it is happening.
If you feel sick, “just take a COVID test,” Goodman says. “Especially if you’ve taken the necessary precautions, there’s a good chance it’s just a cold or flu. And there’s no point in panicking until you know the results.”
We must not think this way forever. The pandemic will eventually come under control, Beyrer said. Current projections estimate that it may happen “well into 2022 or 2023” after more of the world has been immunized.
For now, the best bet is to continue to follow public health guidelines and focus on taking care of one’s mental health.
“Be careful … but don’t stop your life,” Smerling says. “Look for ways to connect. Connecting emotionally will make you feel better physically.”
More:You’re not really fighting for COVID. You probably have bigger problems.