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Psychologist Offers Caution About Coronavirus-Related Anxiety

WALNUT CREEK (CBS SF) -- As the fight against coronavirus ramps up, so does a general sense of fear in the public. With so much talk about staying safe from COVID-19, some might be wondering how to keep those concerns out of our heads.

Cruise ships are sailing around in circles and schools and museums are closing. On Thursday afternoon, Doug Barrows couldn't use his refillable cup at the Starbucks in Walnut Creek.

"They wouldn't use my cup because of the coronavirus! I don't get that," he said.

When asked if he thought to coffee shop chain might be taking safety concerns too far, he replied, "Yeah, right now. I think it's paranoia. I mean, show me the connection there."

A lot of people are taking things pretty far these days, but at what point does an "abundance of caution" become hysteria?

"I have people who are now having sessions on Skype because they're not leaving their homes because of the coronavirus. Or people coming in with surgical masks on their face," said Dr. Scott Lingen, a clinical psychologist in Walnut Creek.

His practice specializes in helping people get through their fear and anxiety. He says a little anxiety is good; it helps us make safe choices.

"When does it become maladaptive?" he said. "When somebody says, 'I know what I'm going to do, I'm not going to leave my house for the next month and I'm going to watch every news outlet and scare myself to death.'"

Dr. Lingen says news of the crisis is having a heightened effect on people who already have anxiety issues. He says the steady stream of talk on social media isn't helping.

Almira Tique is a high school junior who says her friends are freaking each other out.

"We haven't had anything else to talk about. So when something like this comes along, we blow it out of proportion and make it more hysterical for everybody else," said Tique.

Dr. Lingen says people who are most fearful are often those who have experienced some kind of trauma in their lives. He says their brains don't respond well to logic and that's why they should try to avoid triggers that can cause anxiety.

According to Lingen, people who are fearful should select one or two trusted sources of information, such as the CDC website, and then try to tune out all the rest of the scary noise.

"I don't want to scare myself, but I don't want to avoid it as well," said Marie-Laine Checa. She is the mother of healthy young children, but she also wants to keep a healthy perspective. "Of course I care about the well being of my child, but I don't want to miss out on life, too."

Fear of the coronavirus is leaving us with a profound choice: Will it motivate us to make smarter choices or paralyze us from living our lives?

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