Experts Explain How To Handle Anxiety Around Getting The Flu

Anxiety About Getting The Flu

If you've ever been taken down by the flu, then you know it's akin to feeling like you've hit by a bus over and over again. It goes without saying that it's an experience you don't want to repeat. If you live with other people, and they get the flu, it can be more difficult to avoid getting it, too. But, short of checking into a hotel, what do you do if your partner or roommate gets the flu, and anxiety about getting sick has you in full-on panic mode?

Honestly, I never used to worry about getting sick. I thought the flu was something that only happened to other people because it had never happened to me. However, last year, my roommate came home from work sick. Despite my best efforts (supplements, cleaning, vigilant hand washing) to stay well, within a few days I had picked up an upper respiratory infection so ferocious I had to cancel a trip to Las Vegas to see Lady Gaga. Within a week, I also had the flu. I spent most of January 2019 in bed in a feverish fog rewatching old episodes of Law & Order: SVU. Now that flu season is upon us again, my anxiety about getting the flu and repeating that hellish experience is elevated.

Having anxiety about getting the flu isn't necessarily a bad thing. According to a 2012 study published in the journal Public Health Reviews, people who are anxious about getting sick are more likely to wash their hands than people who aren't. On the other hand, pre-existing anxiety can cause stress, which might make you more susceptible to getting the flu Dr. Niket Sonpal, a NewYork City-based internist, gastroenterologist, and faculty member at Touro College of Medicine, tells Bustle.

"Stress decreases the body’s lymphocytes — the white blood cells that help fight off infection," he explains. "In an otherwise healthy person, a chronically anxious person is more susceptible to colds, flus, and viruses because they are typically operating under an immune system that is being taxed and depleted by anxiety."


What's more, while getting the flu vaccine can reduce your chances of getting the flu, a small 2017 study of 112 people published in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry reported that the flu vaccine exacerbated mental health issues in people with pre-existing anxiety or depression. But Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, tells Bustle that the benefits of getting the flu shot outweigh the risks.

"Many people are afraid of getting the flu shot because they are afraid they will get the flu. The flu shot is made from dead viruses and cannot give you the flu," Dr. Hafeez says. "However, the vaccine can trigger an immune response from your body, so you may have a few mild symptoms, like achy muscles or a low-grade fever. The benefit of getting the shot far outweighs the risk."

She adds that if you're feeling anxious about getting the flu, being prepared can help you feel more in control and in turn reduce your anxiety, which can reduce your chances of getting sick. She suggests talking appropriate precautions over with your doctor and perhaps even asking for a B12 shot. Because, according to a study published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Immunology, B12 plays an important role in supporting the immune system.

In addition, if you have had the flu before like me, Dr. Hafeez says it's important to remind yourself that while it was an unpleasant experience, you did recover.

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Taking precautions to avoid getting sick is smart. It's when those precautions takes over your life that it becomes a problem. "Normal worry about the flu involves taking whatever precautions are reasonable not to get it. Anxiety about the flu might mean taking abnormal precautions to avoid it, like not flying on a plane during flu season or not attending a social gathering. Behaviors like this give people a false sense of control," Dr. Hafeez says.

Recently, my roommate came home from work sick again. And while I wanted to avoid my apartment for as long as possible, I knew that wasn't really feasible. Instead, like Dr. Hafeez suggests, I took some precautions to make myself feel like I was in control.

I disinfected everything we both touch on the regular like doorknobs, the kitchen sink, as well as the handles of the fridge, microwave, and water pitcher. I also wiped down all hard surfaces, faucets, and made sure we didn't share any food. I repeated my disinfecting regimen each time I used something she had touched. It's been a week. She's recovered and I didn't get sick.

In order to keep your immune system strong during flu season. Dr. Sonpal recommends taking a multivitamin, eating a diet that's high in fruits and veggies, staying active, washing your hands often, getting plenty of sleep, taking probiotics, and getting the flu shot. It's also important to reduce your stress as much as possible, and perhaps even adopting a regular meditation practice.

The 2019 flu season is poised to be a particularly nasty one, The New York Times reported. Australia is wrapping up a rough flu season, and Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the influenza division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Times that the severity of the flu in Australia can sometimes be predictive of flu danger in North America.

It's totally normal to want to do everything you can to avoid getting the flu. Just be careful to make sure your flu-prevention strategy doesn't take over your life. If you need more help, reach out to a mental health professional for extra support.


Dr. Niket Sonpal, a NewYork City-based internist, gastroenterologist, and faculty member Touro College of Medicine

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University

Studies referenced:

Coughlin, S. S. (2012). Anxiety and Depression: Linkages with Viral Diseases. Public Health Reviews, 34(2). doi: 10.1007/bf03391675

Jessica A. Harper, Charles South, Madhukar H. Trivedi, Marisa S. Toups. Pilot investigation into the sickness response to influenza vaccination in adults: effect of depression and anxiety. Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 2017 Sep; 48: 56–61. doi: 10.1016/j.genhosppsych.2017.07.005

Tamura, J. , Kubota, K. , Murakami, H. , Sawamura, M. , Matsushima, T., Tamura, T. , Saitoh, T. , Kurabayshi, H. And Naruse, T. (1999), Immunomodulation by vitamin B12: augmentation of CD8+ T lymphocytes and natural killer (NK) cell activity in vitamin B12‐deficient patients by methyl‐B12 treatment. Clinical & Experimental Immunology, 116: 28-32. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2249.1999.00870.x