News Detail

Lori Zoellner, Emma Peconga and Michelle Bedard-Gilligan discuss anxiety, fear and active problem solving while dealing with an ambiguously threatening environment, in this Seattle Times article.

A cough, and our hearts stop: Coping with coronavirus anxiety and fear

By Michele Bedard-Gilligan, Emma PeConga, and Lori Zoellner
Special to The Times

We are you. We are mothers, daughters, students and teachers. Yet we are also clinical psychologists who spend our days researching and treating pathological anxiety and fear. With the near constant news of the spreading coronavirus and fatalities, our personal and professional identities have dramatically collided, forcing us to consciously live consistent with the scientific principles we know well.

This became very real for one of us on March 1, as two young children developed sudden, unexplained fevers. As they lay uncharacteristically quiet on the couch complaining of sore throats and headaches, fear set in. What followed was 24 hours of worry, internet searching, repeated calls to the pediatrician, and constant self-reassurance — kids are unlikely to develop severe symptoms, coughing and breathing difficulties are primary symptoms — but anxiety persisted. In the end, the two kids were diagnosed with strep infections, and anxiety subsided.

In Seattle’s elevated threat environment, anxiety processes are playing out in our daily lives. A colleague coughing during a faculty meeting captures our attention within seconds and sends our thoughts racing: “Don’t you know there are vulnerable people here?” to “Is this meeting really that important?” This is classic attentional bias to threat, where our brain’s danger system directs attention to any potential threats. Rational and irrational threats are now everywhere, from our well-used office doorknob, a crowded ramen noodle house, to a kindly neighbor shaking an older parent’s hand. Our news media runs constant BREAKING NEWS alerts, promising to provide “facts not fear” or help to “plan not panic.” As experts, we know this coverage amps up anxiety; yet, we watch, too.

Read the entire article here.