The threat of a coronavirus pandemic is scary.
But the usual bulk-buying of hand sanitiser and suspicion of anyone with a cough pales in comparison to the effects of coronavirus panic on those with health anxiety.
Amelia-Eve Warden, 25, who was diagnosed with multiple anxiety disorders seven years ago, has experienced panic attacks when leaving the house due to fears of catching or spreading coronavirus.
When she developed pneumonia, her fears spiralled. The constant coverage and fearmongering around coronavirus didn’t help.
‘I was in Norway three weeks ago and got sick, just common cold symptoms, then came back and got told I had post-flu pneumonia,’ Amelia-Eve tells Metro.co.uk.
‘This isn’t something unordinary to me as my immune system isn’t the best, but when I came back it was in the midst of the coronavirus outrage which of course made me think this was a possibility, especially with live news stating all the symptoms are “pneumonia-like”, which for people with anxiety and now told they have post-flu pneumonia, can really make you think you’re really sick.
‘After I went to hospital and was told I had post-flu pneumonia I did isolate.
‘Worried I could catch something else, and it also took its toll on my anxiety and depression.
‘I cried for days in the home alone and also every time I went outside, even to the shop, I would also have a panic attack as I must be worried this was a possibility.
‘I think because I have been sick recently, and people in my office have been joking that I have it, it really has made me worry that I might have this life-threatening sickness.
‘I think the fear-mongering is uncalled for and cold – making the nation panic and think they might catch a virus that can kill you on the train is simply putting fear into people’s heads for no reason. Fear and scare isn’t pushing caution.’
Sara Dewhurst, 34, has undergone therapy for health anxiety, which ‘helped a lot’. But the fears around coronavirus have triggered some damaging patterns of thought.
Sara tells us: ‘I work within a gym setting where there are more germs than the average workplace and since the news of coronavirus I have noticed more irrational thoughts trying to creep in: “What if somebody in the gym has it?’ “What if I get sidetracked and forget to wash my hands and touch my mouth?”.
‘I have to work hard at keeping a rational grip on my thoughts when I have to visit cities or travel on public transport too.
‘The situations where there will be lots of people in a confined space require me to work hard on reframing my irrational thoughts.
‘I avoided going to the Trafford Centre this weekend purely because I’m going to London this week on a business trip and I didn’t have the headspace to deal with both.’
While our society has become more open about mental illness in the past few years, there’s still lingering shame around experiencing health anxiety.
Couple that with fears of an airborne illness and it’s easy to fall into a dangerous trap of total isolation, wherein those experiencing health anxiety shut themselves off from the world both physically and emotionally, too scared to talk about what they’re going through or to ask for help.
When you’re already prone to anxiety, that combination of fear, shame, and self-imposed isolation can be dangerous.
Counsellor Elizabeth Turp explains that the threat of coronavirus hits some of us so hard because it’s an ‘unknown threat’ that taps into many of our deepest anxieties.
‘The way that it’s being portrayed is connecting with the fear centre in our brain; our underlying fears,’ Elizabeth explains. ‘Nobody wants to feel more under threat of death. This is very real. It’s something that will come up in therapy.’
If you are struggling with health anxiety in the midst of all the coverage of coronavirus, there are some steps you can take.
Acknowledge how you’re feeling
Spoiler: squashing down negative thoughts and feelings and pretending they’re not happening doesn’t actually make them go away. Annoying, we know.
Remind yourself that it’s totally normal to feel anxious about illness – it’s a very common and completely understandable fear.
‘It’s very normal to feel scared about something like this,’ says Elizabeth. ‘Acknowledge that you feel this way. Don’t ignore these feelings.’
Don’t be afraid to ask for support
If you’re already in therapy, chat to your therapist about your coronavirus fears – they’ll be able to help you process these fears and come up with healthy coping strategies.
If you’re not currently in treatment, there’s no shame in having some one-off counselling sessions amidst a very stressful situation.
Chat to friends and coworkers about how they can help you – whether that’s not making jokes about coronavirus every time someone sneezes or allowing you to work from home. You’re likely to find they’re experiencing some of the same fears.
Don’t completely self-isolate
If venturing into the outside world feels impossible, take steps to ensure you’re not completely alone and left to spiral.
Keep connected with phone calls and video chats. A lot of therapists will offer online sessions for those who aren’t ready to be in public.
Curate your newsfeed
If you’re finding every breaking news alert about coronavirus sends you spinning, it’s completely okay to do a total blackout and take some time away from the internet.
For some, though, not knowing what’s going on can be even more anxiety-inducing.
Take a more curated approach by turning off breaking news alerts, muting certain words on Twitter, and unfollowing news sources and influencers (and your panicked grandma) that are spreading misinformation.
It can help to feel totally informed of the reality of what’s going on.
Amelia-Eve has found doing her own research helpful.
‘I’ve done a fair amount of research into the sickness to ease my mind, with reliable credible sources,’ she says. ‘It’s a flu that can be caught and has common symptoms, but seasonal flu causes more deaths a year than this virus.’
Sara, who along with experiencing health anxiety is now a psychologist running The Well Nest, advises: ‘Take time to read the facts and look beyond a fear-mongering headline, make sure your facts and stats are from a credible source.’
Write it down
Just getting those fears out – even the ones that are totally irrational and feel really embarrassing – can be a huge help in processing the emotions behind them and soothing your concerns.
‘Allow yourself to worry,’ says Elizabeth. ‘Put it down in writing in a notebook, and then put that away.’
Have a stash of grounding and relaxation techniques ready
When you feel anxiety building, whip out a tool that works to bring you back to the present, slow down, and self-soothe.
A common grounding technique is to focus on your surroundings, asking yourself what you can see, hear, and smell.
Sara recommends focusing on deep breathing to send signals to your brain and body to relax.
‘Think of it as switching off the fight or flight mode,’ she says. ‘Take slow, deep breaths; your belly should rise when you breathe in, and fall when you breathe out.
‘This helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system and sends signals to the brain telling it that everything is safe.’
Reality check your thinking
A huge part of dealing with anxiety is realising when you’re catastrophising.
Are you thinking about huge hypotheticals and chains of events that have a tiny chance of happening in the future? Are you jumping to unrealistic conclusions based on a slight tickle in your throat?
Bring your mind back to the present and reality check each thought, asking yourself for evidence and challenging each one.
‘With anxiety, it’s often like you’re ten steps ahead, so bring things back to the present,’ says Elizabeth. ‘What is the actual situation now? That can help reassure you that it’s not a big threat in this country.’
Catherin Gallacher, a counsellor based in Glasgow, adds that it’s worth focusing on what you actually know – the proven facts that will help to challenge the assumptions your anxious mind is making.
‘Be really aware of what you’re thinking,’ says Catherine. ‘Sometimes we catastrophise, we focus on all these “what if?”.
‘Bring things back to what you actually know.
‘Reassure yourself, calm yourself. We call it self-soothing.’
Look after your physical health
Physical and mental health is closely intertwined, so it’s always important to make sure you’re looking after your body as well as your mind.
But when every twinge of pain or slightest symptom will trigger a meltdown, keeping your physical health in its best shape is even more crucial.
Make sure you are looking after yourself, doing what you can to help get a good night’s sleep, eating well and doing exercise.
Catherine says: ‘I always talk to my clients about a wellbeing check. Sleeping, eating, exercising. If we manage our health like this, it can help make us more robust against anxiety.’
To talk about mental health in a private, judgement-free zone, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.
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