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Is Our Fear of Catching COVID-19 a Public Health Problem?

If irrational fear of the virus makes us ill, hope might make us well.

Key points

  • The time between expecting something bad and experiencing something bad can be used to foster hope instead of fear.
  • Positive anticipation can't change outcomes, but it can change how our sympathetic nervous system affects us while we anticipate outcomes.
  • If worrying too much mysteriously makes us worse, hoping might mysteriously make us feel better than usual.


It’s just a word. Yet this word has brought the world to a standstill. Even if the virus can’t stop the world, the fear of catching it can. In fact, the odds of catching the fear of the virus are probably greater than the odds of catching the virus.

This probably has to do with why we’ve survived so far. We learn from our past, and that helps us avoid disastrous futures. That’s been terrific so far. But it’s not so terrific right now. This constant worry about tomorrow is making us sick today. Many are calling it coronaphobia. The very thought of getting this illness is enough to make us sick.

Photograph by Lonny Meinecke
Try hoping (instead of worrying) too much
Source: Photograph by Lonny Meinecke

The Cure for Worry Is Hope


It’s just a word. Yet this word can make us feel better. Just say it out loud, and hope is here. It seems logical that—if irrational fear is making us sick—then hope might make us better. You see, worrying about getting sick shouldn’t make us sick (but it does).

If negative thinking can magically make us sick, why can’t positive thinking (magically) make us better? Doesn’t that make sense? The same things that make us ill for no apparent reason (neurotransmitters), will probably make us feel great for no apparent reason, too. Think of this as a psychological vaccine for the mind.

An Optimism Bias Can Offset a Pessimistic World


Do we have proof? Yes, we do. Pessimism bias? Meet optimism bias. The optimism bias is the belief that things will turn out okay, in the end, no matter what. Even if we can’t change the future per se, we won’t feel as depressed between now and then. The neuroscientist Tali Sharot puts it this way: “We can't all be better than everyone else. But if we believe we're better... we're more likely to get that promotion... because we're more social, more interesting” (Sharot, 2012, para. 8).

She’s not the only one who thinks so. Other scientists have found that simply creating positive expectations about the future can alleviate the symptoms of major depressive disorder. The time between now and the future is a very long opportunity to fiddle with our expectations. If we expect the worst, our sympathetic nervous system takes a big toll on us. But if we expect the best, the time between now and then becomes a chance to foster neurotransmitters that make us feel pretty good. It’s called future-directed therapy.

The Doctor Is In: Here Is Prognosis and Prescription

Our illness is simply that we worry too much.

The doctor’s advice? Hope.

Make hope the new pandemic.


Arora, A., Jha, A. K., Alat, P., & Das, S. S. (2020). Understanding coronaphobia. Asian Journal of Psychiatry, 54, 102384.

Meinecke, L. (2013). Fostering anticipation: Looking forward to looking glass therapy. Retrieved from

Saniotis, A. (2020). Editor’s prelude to special issue: Coronaphobia and fearscapes. Journal of Futures Studies, 25(2), 1-2. doi:10.6531/JFS.202012_25(2).0001

Sharot, T., Korn, C. W., & Dolan, R. J. (2011). How unrealistic optimism is maintained in the face of reality. Nature Neuroscience, 14(11), 1475-1479. doi:10.1038/nn.2949

Sharot, T. (2012). Tali Sharot: The optimism bias [Video file]. Retrieved from

Vilhauer, J. S., Young, S., Kealoha, C., Borrmann, J., IsHak, W. W., Rapaport, M. H., & ... Mirocha, J. (2012). Treating major depression by creating positive expectations for the future: A pilot study for the effectiveness of future‐directed therapy (FDT) on symptom severity and quality of life. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 18(2), 102-109. doi:10.1111/j.1755-5949.2011.00235.x

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