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Women's Health

How to manage your anxiety during a pandemic

Mon 23rd March, 2020


Coronavirus is anxiety-inducing, even for those of us who don't have an anxiety disorder. For those that do, the overwhelming changes that are being introduced to our daily lives can be debilitating.

In a year of chaos, we sought out some expert advice. Sydney-based psychotherapist Sarah Tottle walked us through how a pandemic can affect those of us with anxiety, what we can all do about it, and what to do if you're noticing your mental health cracking.

For a lot of us, waking up at 5am in a cold sweat with our heart pounding has become the norm, and when there's a pandemic sweeping the globe it's hardly surprising.

If you're anything like me, you check the news obsessively instead of closing your eyes - desperately looking for answers but only finding more anxiety and added fear. You wash your hands (again) and mutter to yourself "I fucking hate corona."

Often, I will methodically make my way to the toaster in an effort to feel better (carbs increase serotonin release, didn’t you know?) but more recently I've just been confused, accidentally washing my clothes with dishwasher tablets, roaming around my house smelling like the mouldy corners of a share house bathroom. My brain is fried.

For someone with an anxiety disorder, these times are incredibly hard. The need to obsessively hand wash, the constant fear of the unknown, and the inability to go outside, all makes the perfect recipe for a Bad Mental Health Time. Usually, I'd combat my anxiety by seeing friends, heading to the gym, or going to a coffee shop and reading a good book. Of course, none of those remedies are available.

For those living with mental health conditions, getting by in the coronavirus-enforced new normal can be devastating. Studies have shown that socially isolated people, with or without mental health conditions, are less able to deal with stressful situations, and others have even highlighted that the impact of isolation and loneliness on health and mortality "are of the same order of magnitude as such risk factors as high blood pressure, obesity, and smoking".

Sarah Tottle is a Sydney-based psychotherapist with a PHD in psychology from Lancaster University. She noted that one of the main issues is that people are grappling with an intense desire for good information, only to be met with sensationalised media reports and fear mongering.

'There's a fear of the unknown," she says.

"Perhaps there's a worry about how the virus would impact people physically, or even the financial and economical effects. You could have heightened concern about infecting family members or being responsible for the death of somebody else. There's a lack of control over a situation that can exacerbate the symptoms.”

Being in lockdown doesn't help the situation either. However, it is an essential part of our fight against Covid-19, and exists to stop the spread of the the virus and protect the most vulnerable members of society who might die if they contract it. On the topic of quarantine, Tottle shed some light on how this can fuel anxiety and leave us feeling all the more helpless.

“Quarantine can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety because a person is in isolation, not having their usual routine, with their thoughts ruminating. We need social interaction and the outdoors to fuel serotonin. There's also a lack of routine, which means people can feel a sense of hopelessness. In extreme cases, this leads to adjustment disorder. Protecting your mental health in times of panic is very important".


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Protecting your mental health in times of panic. With the news on coronavirus varying, many people are on a spectrum from absolute panic to not giving a hoot. The psychology of panic is one of social contagion. When we see others panicking, hoarding, and so forth, we follow suit, losing sight of our own judgement. There's also the scarcity mentality- less supply of goods creates a higher demand. We want what we cannot have. The flipside of this is millennials taking advantage of the lower cost of flights and realising that there is little likelihood of them being too impacted by Covid-19. We're young, fit and healthy, so we have nothing to worry about, right? While that's true to some extent, us young people can be carriers of the virus, and unknowingly infect those that are immunocompromised. That could have grave consequences on a person that has a health condition like, say, COPD. So, while we shouldn't panic about the virus, because, the fact is, most people will survive it (it's not the pneumonic plague), many older or immunocompromised patients won't. And that's a sad fact that is the case for many viruses. It means we're all responsible for ensuring we don't spread this virus, or any other for that matter. If you're feeling scared, remind yourself that, as a fit healthy individual, you will most likely be fine (although, viruses do mutate and we don't know the full extent of this virus currently). Remind yourself that you have a responsibility to not spread germs to others that aren't in that fortunate position. Stock up on vitamin C, eat healthy, think happy thoughts, and focus on your own prosocial behaviours on how you can make the world a better place. The fact is, focus on building immunity. This includes mindset, as our cells are influenced by our thoughts, in a process called epigenetics. Immunity is not just physical, but is mental too. Edit* happy thoughts won't protect you from a virus, but having a positive mindset and better immunity, puts you in a far better position to fight disease.

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What Practical Things Can We Do To Combat Anxiety In The Time Of Coronavirus?

Tottle recommends a few things to combat anxiety, some of them quite obvious, but others surprising. She tells me to step outside, but avoid public places, as fresh air is an essential part of living a healthy life.

It goes without saying that you need to avoid places that you think will be busy. However, getting some fresh air is important. Whether that’s heading out to a park for a walk or just taking 5 minutes on your balcony, garden, or anywhere outside to just breathe.

Next up: physical movement. We all know that moving releases endorphins, so be sure to get exercise. Whether that means circuits in your bedroom or yoga outdoors, getting exercise will help to combat corona-induced negativity. Just steer clear of the gym (if it's even open) for now.

Tottle recommends using using "worry time" to set limits on social media and media usage, giving yourself a clearly allocated time to worry. It's unreasonable to assume you're just going to not think about what's going on in the world.

"Use the rest of the time for work, study, learning a hobby, and exercise and try not to allow your mind to go into worry unless it’s during the allocated times," she said. This tactic should help you feel more in control of your thoughts.

Tottle also recommended tele-health providers if your anxiety, or other mental health concern, does start to get too much. "There are lots of therapists who can offer tele-health, meaning they will offer therapy via Skype or telephone. I, and many agencies, offer this type of support. You can also ring hotlines if you're feeling particularly vulnerable like Beyond Blue or the Health Direct.gov website".

If there is one good thing that’s come of this pandemic, it’s that people are having frank and open conversations about their mental health. There is a sense of enforced empathy - people suddenly have to appreciate the struggles that those with mental health issues face, because they're being confronted by the exact same feelings.

Anxiety is never a nice feeling - coronavirus related or not. However, there is an opportunity for us to come together and reflect on the nature of mental health conditions more broadly.  

Coronavirus has made the world a scary place for us all, and as a result we're all feeling anxious and unsure. Anxiety is not only a mental health condition, but a human condition, and one that we are all being challenged with collectively. Don't forget to care for yourself, but importantly, for others as well.

If you or someone you know is feeling anxious, experiencing depression or thinking about self-harm, you can call Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636, or even chat via their website which is here. If you think it's a bit more of an emergency, you can call Lifeline at 13 11 14, or visit their website here. If you need immediate emergency assistance, please dial 000. International suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.