How we can deal with our anxiety during the coronavirus uncertainty.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Last night when I switched on the news it was all about the coronavirus. My social media was also a bombardment. I, a mental health professional and fairly level headed, began to feel the edge of panic. I confess; thoughts such as, “maybe I should go and bulk buy pasta and prosecco,” crossed my mind.

Yes, I know I’m probably late to this but for the past few weeks I have refused to pay a great deal of attention due to knowing how much the media can cause mass panic. In this way I have been self protecting the mind that can, at times, feel fragile.

I’m not going to tell you about coronavirus; I’m sure you know exactly what it is and how you can protect yourself. But how about the effects on the mind?

How can you lessen your anxiety?

Firstly, look at the facts. We can all read endlessly about the empty shelves in large supermarket stores where people have been panic buying or about what this government or that government are saying but arm yourself with factual scientific knowledge to lessen the hearsay panic. The best source of information for this including a ‘myth busting’ section is the World Health Organisation.

When we start to examine facts about any situation what we are doing is bringing the rational thinking areas of our brain online; the pre-frontal cortex. In moments of fear, anxiety and panic our amygdala, the emotional part of our brain is on full alert; this is our mammalian part of the brain and it’s here to protect us from danger. However, in this time of social media and constant news bombardment we need to stay clear headed and bring on the rational. I write about anxiety and what’s happening in our brains here.

Write down a list of facts about the coronavirus. This will begin to bring on your rational thinking brain rather than speculating, imagining and wondering. Here are a few to get you started:

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus has led to more than 100,000 illnesses and more than 3,000 deaths worldwide. However, let’s compare that with the flu virus; in the U.S. alone, the flu has caused an estimated 34 million illnesses, 350,000 hospitalisations and 20,000 deaths this season. Yet we are so used to the flu being about we no longer panic or even think about it.

The rate of contagion is higher with the coronavirus than the flu; which is why people are self isolating. An analysis of outcomes in China indicate that 81% of people had mild symptoms, 14% had severe illness and around 5% died from coronavirus.

Compared to SARS and MERS disease the coronavirus pathogen is less deadly. See here for a graph on how the coronavirus compares to other infectious diseases.

The John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center released figures stating that the total recovered is 71,717 out of 145,377 confirmed cases with total deaths totalling 5,429.

Are our thoughts facts?

Another good way of lessening anxiety is to find out how true your thoughts are. Our brains can carry us away thinking of worst case scenarios on everything. I know that last night I spent a good twenty minutes imagining scenarios that could have been straight out of apocalyptic nightmarish films. By the end of those twenty minutes I had become homeless and starving, wandering the demolished streets and looting supermarkets for food. STOP! Catch those thoughts before they carry you away down that anxious road.

We have available factual resources at our fingertips and we can find out FACTS from reputable government websites. Once you have done this put down your phone. Social media is hive of hearsay and people’s opinions; all well and good but can heighten your anxiety at this time.

Writing down your fears, worries and concerns and journaling is a cathartic exercise. Jack Kornfield in a podcast with Tim Ferriss advises us of doing a visualisation exercise with those worries and offer them to the Deity/God/Goddess of your choice and/or religion. Placing the worries into the lap of the God and saying,”here are my worries. I’m giving them to you to look after. I’m not worrying about them at this moment.”

Jack Kornfield also goes on to advise that we are all struggling in this time of uncertainty; with our thoughts and emotions. We can sit mindfully with those emotions and allow them to surface within us. When we do this they often arise and pass away, like clouds. Realising that we are all in this together can help us to feel less isolated with our fears; offering ourselves kindness and compassion as well as those around us can soften the heightened fears and anxiety.

Grounding yourself is important in this time when we can be carried away with our thoughts and emotions. Sit under a tree in nature, feel the earth beneath you and the breeze on your skin, breathe into the moment, notice the physical sensations and remind yourself that in this moment you are ok.

All of this might sound like some ‘way out there’ kind of stuff but if it works to calm the mind and body then it’s definitely worth a try. Much of our fear comes from uncertainty and a feeling that we are out of control of things. We can’t control what is happening around is, that is true, but we can control how we respond.

People with existing mental health conditions are suffering increased feelings of stress and anxiety. Quarantine and self-isolation are causing further negative impacts on our mental health according to a February report in the Lancet.

“Separation from loved ones, the loss of freedom, uncertainty over disease status, and boredom can, on occasion, create dramatic effects. Suicide has been reported, substantial anger generated, and lawsuits brought following the imposition of quarantine in previous outbreaks.

“The potential benefits of mandatory mass quarantine need to be weighed carefully against the possible psychological costs.”

The World Health Organisation has issued guidelines on how we can look after ourselves and our mental health during the outbreak.

“Avoid watching, reading or listening to news that cause you to feel anxious or distressed; seek information mainly to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones. Seek information updates at specific times during the day once or twice. The sudden and near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel worried. Get the facts. Gather information at regular intervals, from WHO website and local health authorities platforms, in order to help you distinguish facts from rumors.

Protect yourself and be supportive to others. Assisting others in their time of need can benefit the person receiving support as well as the helper.”

Mind.org.uk advises that people with existing mental health conditions can do a number of things to help to ease the stress and anxiety; particularly people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) who may be struggling with the amount hand washing we are being told to do.

Connect and let other people know that you are struggling; if you have to self-isolate then keep in touch via telephone or skype.

Set limits like 20 seconds for hand washing then distract yourself straight afterwards.

Breathing exercises such as box breathing; in for the count of 4, hold for 4, release for 4, and hold for 4, can help to bring our minds and bodies into much calmer states.

If you have to self-isolate then decide on routine at home that pleases you. Try to build some exercise into your routine; there are loads of free exercise routines on Youtube that range from easy to challenging.

If you are able to go outside try to take a walk in nature to boost your mood. If you aren’t able then open up the windows, pot some plants for your windowsills and listen to sounds of nature on your phone to boost wellbeing.

Finding ways to be creative and stimulated can help if you are self isolating as this can help in a therapeutic way too; write out your fears as suggested above, draw, paint, craft; all of these things will also serve as distraction too.

In this time of fear, panic, uncertainty and stress we must do what we can to calm ourselves. Be that one person that stays calm and spread that calm outwards to others.

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