The struggle with anxiety when coronavirus outbreak gets serious


In addition to infected people worldwide and deaths, the Covid-19 outbreak has led to panic and xenophobia. Some run to the markets to stock up on rice, noodles, salt, soya sauce and any other reserved food while others degrade Chinese nationals just because the virus happened to originate there.

For people with underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s easy for stresses over coronavirus to cross the line from healthy precaution to unhealthy worry—worry about leaving their house; insufficient food and personal supplies; having their kids go to school or being with friends for fear of contracting the virus. Students with more mental health problems and may have more symptoms.

When a person is already anxious and that reptilian part of his/her brain is already activated by other stuff, then something like the coronavirus comes along and he/she is primed to freak out. It’s also important to note that for a lot of people, coronavirus is not their only stressor. There is also worry about losing jobs and broken marriages amongst others.

Part of what makes this outbreak so tricky from a mental health perspective is that the anxiety and fear aren’t totally irrational. We understand so much in medicine and we know so much about diseases, and yet we can’t do anything about the coronavirus.

Nidal Moukaddam, an attending psychiatrist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, USA said the essence of anxiety is fear: You’re afraid something really bad is going to happen, and then an outbreak like this confirms your worst fears.

“And there you go: something bad has happened that has paralyzed everybody on earth,” she said.

Still, in many cases, even anxiety about the coronavirus isn’t enough to overcome the stigma of seeking help.

 

Anxiety thrives on uncertainty

And, as the coronavirus spreads, our unanswered questions can make us feel vulnerable or fearful. “Will it come to my community,” or, “Am I at risk?” We've got national anxiety at the moment, a kind of shared stress, and we are all in a country of uncertainty. The more you stress, the more vulnerable you can become to viruses, because stress can dampen your immune response.

But there are steps you can take to push back against the communal anxiety.

1. Plan ahead to feel more in control

Those prone to anxiety like to be in control. So, if you take basic steps to prepare for the possibility of an outbreak in your community, you may feel a sense of relief. For instance, ask your employer about a work-from-home option. Be prepared for disruptions such as school closings. Have contingency plans for these disruptions. In addition, identify trusted sources of information you can turn to in the event of an outbreak. It’s very important to be able to say, Well, no matter what happens, I've done the best that I can to be prepared.

 

2. Unplug. Learn to be in the moment

It’s important to be in the know. But you don’t need to obsess over the news. “There’s a point where, information gathering could become problematic,” says Stewart Shankman, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies anxiety. He says it could have the unintended effect of driving up your fear.

If you’re taking basic steps to protect yourself and stay informed, that’s enough. There’s no way to reduce your risk to zero. You could spend all day and night reading headlines, news alerts or tweets but this “does not change your risk of getting coronavirus.”

Once you unplug from the news for a bit, why not try a mindfulness app to help you let go of anticipatory anxiety. From numerous studies has shown that mindfulness is very effective at reducing stress and anxiety.

 

3. Prioritize good sleep

While there’s still a lot to learn about the new coronavirus, prior research has shown that well-rested people are better at fending off viruses. For instance, when researchers sprayed a live common cold virus into the noses of a bunch of healthy people as part of a study, not everyone got sick. “Individuals who were sleeping the least were substantially more likely to develop a cold,” study author Aric Prather, of the University of California, San Francisco told us when the study was published.

If you’re having trouble sleeping, techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia can be helpful.

 

4. Exercise, and eat well

This is always good advice, and it’s worth emphasizing during times of uncertainty. There’s lots of evidence that daily exercise can help promote feelings of well-being—and boost your immunity. For instance, this study found that physical activity protects against symptoms of anxiety. And getting your heart rate up each day, just by taking a walk, lowers the risk of many chronic conditions. So, keep walking your dog, that counts. Or maybe, get sweaty doing a group activity (Just don't stand too close to anyone who might be sick!)

What you eat can also help improve your outlook. A recent study found that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein helped reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety among a group of young adults.

“Eating sugar and ultra-processed food increases inflammation and suppresses immune function,” says Mark Hyman, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. So, now may be a good time to lay off the Cheetos and sweets.

 

5. Wash your hands​

When an infectious disease hits a community, there is only so much anyone can do. You can’t sterilize your entire environment. But taking a few preventative actions will help reduce your risk and hopefully relieve your anxiety.

The coronavirus is transmitted from person to person via respiratory droplets. When an infected person sneezes or coughs, droplets containing virus particles are released. If you are standing close, you can become infected. “The respiratory droplets travel about three feet before they tend to settle out of the air,” says infectious disease expert Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Federal guidelines suggest 1.80m of separation, so keep your distance.

In addition, droplets can land on surfaces, such as elevator buttons, doorknobs, and shared workspaces. So, if you touch a contaminated surface then touch your face, you can become infected. The virus can enter your body through your eyes, nose or mouth.

During an outbreak, proper hand-washing is your best defense against a virus. So, follow the evidence-based advice to wash for 20 seconds or more using soap and water. Or use hand sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol.


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