You're feeling sick. Try not to panic. How to combat COVID, flu anxiety this winter

So you've woken up with a sore throat. Or sneeze. Or cough. Don't jump to the worst-case scenario.

As the U.S. opens up while still in the midst of a pandemic, this winter is likely to see the return of colds and the flu, along with continuing COVID-19 cases. The symptoms we once may have glossed over now could indicate something worse – which isn't the most comforting concept. 

"Getting sick now means a possible serious sick – it's not just 'I'm going to stay home because I have a slight cold or a flu,' " says Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a family psychotherapist based in New York City. "The flu-like symptoms are very much like the COVID symptoms, and our minds (can) go to the worst possible scenario, instead of just being able to calm ourselves down and take it one step at a time. … There is the unknown and the unknown is always a scary thing." 

Medical professionals stress that precautions such as getting vaccinated and wearing masks indoors still need to be taken to keep everyone safe. Mental health experts are also highlighting a need to find ways to self-soothe heading into winter, which typically sees an influx of illnesses spreading as people spend more time indoors and travel for holidays. 

Feeling sick? Take necessary precautions, but don't panic.

"The first two steps that everybody ought to take are pretty obvious, and that is that you should get immunized against COVID and you should get your flu vaccine," says Dr. Chris Beyrer, epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He notes that "people are right to be concerned," and should stay vigilant about wearing masks and seeking medical attention in the case of shortness of breath. 

"But also, people should also focus on the things that really make them happy and help them cope," he adds. 

More:Is it safe to get a flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccine at the same time? Experts explain

Don't panic, but do still take the pandemic seriously

Last year, flu activity reached the lowest numbers since the CDC began recording in 1997. Beyrer notes that the "non-vaccine preventative measures" taken then, such as quarantining, mask-wearing and social distancing, played a part in those low numbers.

This year, vaccines and public mask mandates have improved things, but he notes not enough of the U.S. population has been vaccinated to declare the country out of the woods yet. (Though impending recommendations expected this week from the CDC on COVID-19 vaccines for children 5-11 "will make a big difference," he adds.) 

"We're not out of this pandemic. We really strongly encourage people who can stay home to stay at home," Beyrer adds. "Obviously, it's good to know if you have influenza. It's really important to know if you have COVID." 

When in doubt, professionals at the CDC, epidemiologists and primary care doctors, family physicians or nurse practitioners are solid sources to listen to and reach out to with questions. 

More:What it's like to deal with 'relentless' health anxiety: 'I think I’m going to die’

If you're sick, allow time for physical and mental rest

Prior to the pandemic, it wasn't uncommon to go to work or school despite being sick. COVID-19 has changed that – those who are sick need to stay home as much as possible, experts say. 

Working from home has also caused some employees to feel they need to work through sickness. Smerling highlights the importance of allowing oneself to be sick, and to take better care to soothe and heal. Getting outside, watching a fun movie or TV show and reaching out to loved ones are important parts of slowing down and practicing self-care. 

"I think that's a profound lesson that we have learned from the pandemic: that it's okay to take your foot off the (gas)," she says. "You're still going to be driving the car, but you're not going to be driving the car at 90 miles an hour. It's OK to to go inside and in reflect and take some time away from the frantic everyday world." 

Otherwise, allow yourself to – safely – live your life

Ken Goodman, a licensed clinical social worker, board member for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and creator of “The Anxiety Solution Series” audio program, works with several clients who feel anxious about re-entering society amid the pandemic. 

"With COVID-19, there's a great deal of uncertainty," he notes. "And typically when there's uncertainty and people are anxious, they resort to safety behaviors, they do things to keep themselves safe, whether that is based in reality or not. (But) as long as you're behaving in an anxious way, you're going to worry. The only way to reduce the worry is to slowly reduce the anxious behaviors."

Goodman works with his clients on slowly giving up what he calls "safety" behaviors – practices that may make someone feel like they're being safe, but that medical professionals have said do not further protect them from COVID-19, such as wearing a mask in the car alone, disinfecting groceries in the garage before bringing them into the house, or showering immediately after arriving home. 

'Exhaustion,' 'frustration': Why some vaccinated people are losing motivation to stay safe

Our minds are wired to protect us. Sometimes this is helpful, such as the impulse to flee from an actively dangerous scene. In other situations, worrying about the worst-case scenario when symptoms don't suggest that's what is happening can cause unnecessary anxiety. 

If you're feeling sick, "just go get a COVID test," Goodman says. "Especially if you've been taking necessary precautions, there's a good chance it's just a cold or the flu. And it doesn't do any good to panic before knowing the results." 

We won't have to think this way forever. The pandemic will eventually come under control, says Beyrer. Current projections estimate it could happen "well into 2022 or 2023," after more of the world gets immunized. 

For the time being, continuing to follow public health guidelines and focus on taking care of one's mental health are the best bets. 

"Be cautious… but don't stop your life," Smerling says. "Look for ways to connect. Connecting emotionally will make you feel better physically." 

More:You're not really fighting about COVID. You likely have bigger problems.