So, this coronavirus (COVID-19) is really uh, doing a number on us, hey? Do you ever accidentally read too much news and start to worry too much about the ineffective (or really: non-existent) measures we have in Australia to deal with nationwide health emergencies? Or maybe you’re questioning and over-thinking the individual actions that you have control over or feeling a massive sense of doom about the hyper-individualism and selfishness in stockpiling food and toilet paper and what that says about us as a society?
Do you feel a sad kind of numb-rage because pockets of that society are also hell-bent on being racist to Asian people who are just trying to get through this also? Has your anxiety got so bad you’re crying in the work bathroom trying to wipe away your tears without touching your face?
If your mental health is suffering because of the alarmism, racism or panic that’s spreading about as fast as the coronavirus itself then you’re not alone. One in six Australians is currently experiencing depression or anxiety, or both, and COVID-19 can, unfortunately, exacerbate that. People of colour and low-income people are also more likely to have general anxiety disorders and also less access to therapy and medical services.
Whether it’s anxiety (or health anxiety, specifically), depression or obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), people with mental health issues are getting hit hard by COVID-19. “For those of us who may be more slanted in an anxious way, we can be really vulnerable to the news, especially if we happen to be germophobes too,” explained psychiatrist Dr. Nicole Naggar to Rolling Stone.
They’re dealing with the double-trouble of having to maintain the general precautions against this disease while managing a disposition that makes things like reading the news or going into a crowded public space incredibly anxiety-inducing, or washing your hands being a slippery slope into obsessive behaviour.
This isn’t anything new by the way. Hong Kong is facing a serious mental health crisis as a result of the awful cocktail of dealing with months of disruption amidst anti-government protests only to now face down COVID-19 spread with the memory of SARS, which killed 300 people in the city, lingering in the background. Those with chronic illnesses or people who are immunocompromised are also facing greater physical and mental health challenges, and highly sensitive people also aren’t doing well as a result of this climate of fear.
While this is of course, in no way an exhaustive list, and we really encourage you to reach out to your trusted support networks (psychs, counsellors, family, friends), there are a couple of things that you can do to try and manage the anxiety COVID-19 might be kicking off inside you.
Acknowledge it’s normal to feel upset
It’s important to acknowledge your anxiety or depression, especially in situations like these where there’s a lot of heightened emotions and public fear you have to move through. Whether it’s intrusive thoughts or physical symptoms like a super-fast heartbeat or shakiness, noticing anxiety and being mindful of it can help you try and keep it in check.
Lean on techniques you may have learnt like cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, breathing exercises or naming things or patterns. Remember the things you have in your toolkit to deal with things that have served you well before: you’ve gotten through every shitstorm so far, and you’ll get through this one.
Reassure yourself with trusted, non-inflammatory information
Baruch Fischhoff, PhD, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert on public perception of risk and human judgment and decision-making, explains that one of the most useful things you can do to manage anxiety is to rely on trusted information.
Resources he recommends are: “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the World Health Organization,” as well as reputable media (think The Guardian and the ABC, not your uncle’s Facebook feed). “They do the best job they can of gathering and communicating the information. That will also protect you from the irresponsible, the rumour mongers, the people who are using this as an opportunity to sell things or to inflame racial hatred or ethnic hatred.”
Consider *trying* to limit your media intake, or be ready to adjust your habits
The media also doesn’t help. Alarmist headlines, resharing of doomsday style photos of empty supermarket shelves, the proliferation of these fucken types of videos (I refuse to embed it) can make looking at your phone a fun game of Russian Roulette: will I see a cute bird video, or will I have a panic attack?
Dr. Robert Schachter, who is an assistant clinical professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, acknowledges that if you’re anxious, it’s probably really hard to try to avoid the media, but suggests that “If you get anxious looking at the media, say, ‘Time out, I’m uncomfortable and anxious, let’s look at how realistic my fears are,’ and go through the steps of assessing that.”
Be judicious with your use of social media, either by muting tweets or deleting the apps altogether. On an analogue level, don’t feel bad about peacing out of conversations you find triggering or telling people you’d rather not chat about COVID-19 endlessly. Unless you’re the doc w the cure or are sharing general safety advice, there’s not a huge amount of point to it.
Do some simple risk analysis and risk management
Dr Fischhoff suggests that after making sure you’re keeping up with reputable info (and not obsessively refreshing Twitter) “you can do a very simple risk analysis which is to say, is there any reason to think that I am at risk? Are there cases where I am, if there are, have I come in contact with them?”
Beyond that, continue to focus on the basic things that you can control: we know that good hygiene and sensible precautions are the most effective things you can do. If you still believe you’re at risk, try to remember that the COVID-19 virus is not a death sentence, talk to people without anxiety about it (or look, ‘less anxiety’ in this economy, I guess) to bring you back down.
Ask yourself if your behaviours are precautionary or disordered
If you have OCD, and one of your compulsive behaviours is washing your hands, first of all, we’re sorry, that’s super fucken rough. It’s complicated trying to untangle what is a normal precautionary behaviour vs. disordered behaviours flaring up. Try to observe what your behaviours are and notice when they’re getting in the way of your life (like, more than your anxiety and OCD might do already). For example, washing your hands a little more than often is probably okay, but if you’re running out of a meeting or date every fifteen minutes to go scrub it’s likely a sign you want to reach out to a mental health professional.
This can extend into all sorts of things: holding your breath on public transport, not eating because you’re afraid the food isn’t “safe,” being unable to concentrate at work because you’re in a panic state. If something is eroding your quality of life, please try and talk to someone (ideally a mental health professional) about it.
Ask yourself if your symptoms are actually anxiety
Look, we’re literally coming out of hay fever season into autumn and lots of us spend time in over-air conditioned offices, messy schools, or on public transport. If you have a slight cough or cold and are about to spiral, try to hit pause for a moment for a simple exercise.
Peter Tyrer, Emeritus Professor of Community Psychiatry at Imperial College London’s Centre for Mental Health, specialises in the treatment of health anxiety among other focuses. He suggests a straightforward exercise to help reduce anxiety about having the disease. Get a piece of paper, and divide it into two columns: “On the left you say, ‘I think I’ve got the disease’ and on the right, ‘I think I’m worried about having the disease’. You’ll find that many more things go on the right-hand side than on the left-hand side,” he explained to Dazed.
When it comes down to it, Tyrer explains that when you ask people, “Would you rather have the disease or the worry that you might have the disease?” people generally pick the latter. Knowing that your anxious brain is lying to you can help you deal with having what’s probably just a spring-cold.