How to look after your mental health when Covid-19 anxiety strikes
Since South Africans began to practise social distancing and self-quarantine measures, health-care facilities have been inundated with people wanting to be tested for Covid-19, as many are experiencing the anxiety of fearing for their health in the midst of a global pandemic.
Dr Colinda Linde, who is a clinical psychologist and a board member of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), said general levels of anxiety are high thanks to Covid-19 and this can easily bring with it health-related paranoia.
“Because we are in a new context, we are hyper-aware of any physical symptom that could maybe be a symptom of corona,” Linde said. “From a context of normality - cold snap, caught a cold, change of season sniffles - it has become danger, life-threatening, fear and overreaction. This is understandable as we are in a situation we have never faced.
"Some are likening it to a world war scenario, and it’s fair to say there are some similarities in that it’s having a global effect on health, economy and mobility.”
The situation is uncertain: we don’t know how bad it will get, how long it will last, whether we will personally become sick and whether we are able to control any of those factors. This increases stress and reactivity for many people, although we all respond differently.
“For some this takes the form of denial and trying to act as if it’s all okay. Others may begin to act out impulsively or seek comfort in food or substances and some will be overwhelmed by despair,” Linde said. “People who are depressed already are at risk of feeling that this is the final straw and that there is no hope. They need more support and containment at this stage.”
Those particularly at risk of experiencing a spike in anxiety levels at this time include anyone who has generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or health anxiety, formerly known as hypochondria.
“GAD is characterised by worry and assuming the worst, and the current situation is an extreme one, so it may feel like the worst has in fact happened. In the case of OCD, especially contamination types, the person’s fears would also seem to be coming to life and they will feel that their compulsions around washing and disinfecting are justified,” Linde said. “In the case of health anxiety, the worry around getting ill or how the illness will be experienced is a constant underlying fear and it can lead to being too fearful to go anywhere that may have even the slightest risk.”
In some people with anxiety, the coronavirus situation has exacerbated it to the point where they experience crippling fear and paranoia.
“I am seeing cases where people are even suspicious of their loved ones carrying illness, when they have simply gone out around the block for a walk,” Linde said.
But it’s not all bad news - the scale of the pandemic is also helping people put smaller problems in perspective.
“Something I am also noticing though, is that people are rising above situations like conflict and specific upsets to acknowledge that there’s a bigger and more serious problem out there,” she said.
Linde’s advice to people who are struggling with corona-related anxiety is to be realistic about your risk factors and keep grounding yourself with facts from reliable sources. If you’re experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety and panic, such as stomach upset, a rapid heart rate, or a feeling of tightness in the chest, it’s easy to mistake these for physical illness. Again, ground yourself in the facts.
“If you’re struggling to separate anxiety symptoms from those of getting sick, download or write a list of the main symptoms for both, and force yourself to reality test when you’re feeling anxious,” Linde said.
You can access a free download of Linde’s methods for managing anxiety on www.thoughtsfirst.com