Could Coronavirus Anxiety Be a Good Thing?

Release time: 2020-05-27 13:41

Could Coronavirus Anxiety Be a Good Thing?

Research shows a correlation between anxiety and health-conscious behavior.

By Kayla Gustafson

Fear. Anxiety. Uncertainty. All of these words and more are being tossed around like candy during this unprecedented time. But are these necessarily “bad” words? Could fear actually be functional? That is just what a team of researchers in the UK recently tried to discover.

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In the study, a few hundred people broadly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic were surveyed in order to better understand indicators of behavior modification during these unique times. Participants self-reported their ratings on a number of different indicators including political ideology, emotional distress amid COVID-19, perceived risk of contracting COVID-19, and behavior changes in light of COVID-19. Political ideology was categorized on a scale from very liberal to very conservative. Measured behavior changes included habits like hand-washing and social distancing.

The research confirmed the positive relationship between fear, anxiety, and behavior change. While fear is often viewed as a negative emotional response to perceived threats, it is important to remember that anxiety can actually be critical to survival.

Just like the fear of fire might keep a child from playing in the fire pit, thereby keeping them safe from harm, anxiety about the coronavirus is helping people adjust their behaviors to protect themselves from a real public health threat. Of note here is the slight difference in meaning between fear and anxiety. The researchers distinguish anxiety as a preparatory reaction to a perceived threat, while fear is considered the “reactive removal of oneself from a position of immediate risk” (Harper, 2020).  

While the study authors also measured political ideology in order to draw conclusions between political leanings and health-compliant behaviors, they found no significant correlation between the two. They explained,

“It is of interest that the measures of fear and anxiety symptoms were stronger predictors than moral and political orientation, all of which explained small to no variance, potentially suggesting more emotional (rather than sociopolitical) influences on compliant behavior. There was also no notable decline in quality of life in relation to behavior change. However, fear of COVID-19 was related to decreased physical and environmental wellbeing. Overall, these results suggest that ‘fear’ and anxiety at the current time have a functional role, and are related to increased compliance for improving public wellbeing.” (Harper, 2020)

There is a fine line, then, between fear and anxiety that must be carefully considered. While anxiety is serving its purpose, helping people stay safe and healthy, fear must not be turned into a weapon that will further harm those with pre-existing mental health conditions. For those who are on the precipice of fear, it is important to reach out to a health-care provider or counselor to check in and receive help.

It is also important to reiterate that this particular study’s participants were located mainly in the UK. Because the pandemic is a continued phenomenon, it is necessary to replicate this study both in the UK and in other locations in order to better understand the correlations between fear, anxiety, ideology, and health-conscious behavior.

For now, the results are a good reminder that emotional intelligence serves a purpose—your mild anxiety is your mind’s way of protecting your body from a potential threat.

Kayla Gustafson is a graduate student in the Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership program at Wheaton College (IL).


Jamie Aten, Ph.D. is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. 

psychology today