Mental health professionals share tips, advice, and coping strategies.
The world is currently facing a global health challenge with little idea of what lies ahead.
It’s difficult to miss the non-stop rolling news coverage of the new coronavirus right now. But, at nigh-on every turn you’ll also find sensationalist headlines, panic-inducing speculation, and terrifying health misinformation. Amid the uncertainty, it can be difficult to decipher fact from fiction.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is causing a great deal of anxiety and panic across the globe. “With cases of confirmed coronavirus infections creeping up, and the media seeming to put a spotlight on the virus, it’s easy to become anxious about it, especially if you or a loved one have a compromised immune system,” said Dr. Diana Gall, a medical doctor at Doctor4U, a confidential online doctor service. “Sometimes, anxiety can encroach on the rest of our lives and prevent us from carrying out daily tasks for fear of coming into contact with the virus.” If you’re living with health anxiety — a specific form of anxiety that focuses on a fear of getting sick — thoughts about the coronavirus can be extremely distressing and debilitating.
If you are struggling with your anxiety right now, know that you’re not alone. The very reason I decided to write this story was because I had a panic attack due to coronavirus-related anxiety. I feel your pain.
I asked mental health professionals for actionable advice, tips, and strategies for people struggling with coronavirus-related anxiety right now.
Read news from trusted sources
Seek out accurate, trusted sources for health information and coronavirus coverage and stick to them. There’s a lot of sensationalist and inaccurate coverage out there, and reading it can really fuel anxiety. During the American Psychological Association’s podcast on coronavirus anxiety, Baruch Fischhoff, PhD advised being discerning about where you get your information and news from.
“I think the most useful thing that people can do at this stage is to find some trusted sources of information like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the World Health Organization, or some of our major media, and just stick to them for information,” said Fischhoff. “That will also protect you from the irresponsible, the rumor-mongers, the people who are using this as an opportunity to sell things or to inflame racial hatred or ethnic hatred.
“Find a few good sources of information. If they tell you that the virus is still remote and they give you confidence that our public health officials have the resources and the freedom to deal with this in a professional way, then you can afford to monitor until they tell you something else.”
Curtail your social media time
Dr. Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder/co-CEO of My Online Therapy, recommended limiting time spent on social media and news sites. “Both can amplify anxiety, and be especially triggering if you’re someone who already struggles with anxiety day-to-day,” she said. “It’s a form of self-care to acknowledge that something is causing you harm and to take action against it.”
Feel free to unfollow or mute anyone who’s tweeting alarmist statements and inaccurate reporting. Consider it unhelpful, unwanted noise — it’s time to turn down the volume on it. If you’re finding social media useful for getting information on friends in affected areas, pay attention to how much time you’re spending online, and assess whether this time is having an intrusive impact on your wellbeing.
Turn off push alerts
If you’ve curated your social media feeds, and limited your news consumption to reliable sources only, then consider cutting down on the number of news alerts you receive on your phone.
Dr. Diana Gall said it might be helpful to turn off — or even just reduce — news alerts on your devices to limit how many stories you’re being exposed to.
“Many times, each news outlet can report on the same story a few times, so one confirmed case reported from seven different news sources can make the risk seem amplified,” she said. Consider checking official healthcare sources for your location as an alternative to relying on push alerts.
Identify catastrophic thoughts
‘Catastrophising’ or cognitive distortion of a situation as considerably worse than it really is, can happen in times of emergency. Touroni advised paying attention to your own thoughts and identify if you’re doing this. “Notice any catastrophic scenarios you might be creating in your mind. When you notice that you’re having a catastrophic thought, tell yourself it’s just that — a thought,” said Touroni. “It’s just something your mind does when you feel a certain way.”
Nadia James, founder at Kinde — a social network for mental health — said it’s important not to allow indulge in “black and white thinking” — AKA dichotomous thinking, a thought pattern which involves extremes and polar opposites. “The key to overcoming black-and-white thinking is to take note of our fear-induced thoughts and think of alternative positive facts. For instance, if you aren’t elderly and don’t have an underlying medical condition, the risk of you becoming critically ill from coronavirus is low,” said James. She also recommended fact-checking your own thoughts, and continuing with your daily routine and hygiene habits as per official public health guidelines.
Psychotherapist Stephanie Healey suggested Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques as a way of coping with anxiety. Those include “working through the avoidance, distractions, breathing, and exploring the ‘what ifs’ as Socratic questions to bubble it right down to what exactly is frightening for them.” CBT therapy involves learning tools and techniques to help you make sense of problems by breaking them down into more smaller issues. It can be practiced at home using CBT worksheets.
Watch your conversations
Dr. Rachel Allan, chartered counselling psychologist, advised paying attention to the conversations you’re having, whether it’s at work, home, or at the pub. “It is natural to discuss concerns with friends and family and to seek reassurance. But if conversations become repetitive, or focused on worst-case scenarios, consider re-directing the subject,” said Allan.
“Discussing the threat of infection with others who are highly anxious can be comforting at first, but can risk escalation of anxiety and fear.”
Just be mindful of how you’re talking about it, and with whom — everyone’s dealing with this situation in their own way.
Recognise the difference between helpful worry and unhelpful worry
It’s natural to feel an increased level of anxiety and threat at the moment — but as Allan said, it’s important to identify when hyper-vigilance becomes more of a hindrance than a help.
“Helpful worry is an appropriate level of worry, and can drive us to take sensible precautions; unhelpful worry is thinking constantly about the threat and focusing on worst case scenarios to the point that we feel helpless, panicky and unable to act,” said Allan. “Behaviours like monitoring physical symptoms, checking the news and being vigilant about hygiene can help us feel better to an extent, but if we find ourselves becoming overly-focused on these activities this can feed into a pattern of escalating stress and worry which is unhelpful.”
It’s worth noting that stress weakens the immune system, so your state of mind might be making you more vulnerable. But seeking out articles like this and paying attention to your mental health is as important as taking care of your physical health, and will give you more control over this.
Try practicing a daily 10-minute mindfulness meditation during this time, something Touroni highly recommends. “Mindfulness allows us to become more aware of our thoughts and feelings and to see how we can become entangled in them in ways that are not necessarily helpful,” she said.
Apps like Headspace, Calm, and Aura might be useful. Palma Michel, a mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher, also suggested trying deep breathing exercises. “Elongating your exhale kicks into your body’s natural relaxation response, calms down your nervous system, snaps you out of disturbing mental chatter, and gets you back into a state of clarity,” said Michel.
She also provided some deep-breathing tips. “Whenever you notice your mind creating worst case scenarios or if you feel anxious, pause for a moment, place one hand on your belly and take a deep inhalation through your nostrils,” she said. “Inhale as deeply as you can, if possible all the way down into your belly (but don’t force it). Then exhale as slowly as you can, deliberately slowing down your exhalation. Repeat this for a few breath cycles, breathing in gently and regularly. Then count to three on the inhalation and six on the exhalation. Keep doing this for three to five minutes.”
There’s a lot of unknowns right now, but it’s always helpful to just focus on what you do know, and what you’re able to control.
Natasha Bhuyan, MD from One Medical, advised reaching out to people you care about to connect, or consulting your GP. “If you are worried about your mental health during this time, reach out to a primary care provider,” Bhuyan added.
Originally published at https://mashable.com.