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High anxiety

The coronavirus has made us aware of many things, not least that the world can turn upside down in the flap of a bat’s wing, but it has also brought into clear focus how crucial mental health is to our general well-being. 

In this new landscape of isolation and uncertainty, holding on to reality has proved difficult, not least for those who see a glass half empty rather than half full. There are means and ways to navigate this unfamiliar terrain by taking one day at a time and trying not to lose hope when despair is all around. 

(200412) — BOURNEMOUTH, April 12, 2020 (Xinhua) — A bench is taped to prevent people from sitting on Bournemouth Beach in Bournemouth, Britain on April 11, 2020. (Photo by Tim Ireland/Xinhua)

Not so long ago, we had our futures mapped out and a sense of solidity in our lives. Most of us had a home, a place to live, work, our health, busy social lives, lots of places to go and people to see. None of the things we have for so long taken for granted remain. 

What helps is if you understand the problem. If you do, you’re halfway to solving it. We have to embrace uncertainty and remember that this will pass and we need to wait. When the world seems like it is ending, it’s difficult to try not to feel that the end is nigh — but that is “catastrophising”.  

Why do we catastrophise? Anxiety amounts to worry about the future, which is often irrational and encompasses endless “what ifs”. Depression often features a sad preoccupation with the past while emphasising feelings of loss and hopelessness. At such a time, people may find themselves experiencing a mixture of these two mood states as they contemplate the loss of their prospects. People are feeling anxious about what losses they will continue to endure as the coronavirus unfolds. Various anxieties may include loss of status, loss of wealth, health, loved ones, life.

Try not to reason emotionally. Try not to let your thoughts and emotions get the better of you, which can trigger fear about what might go wrong. If finances are worrying you, and your “go-to” thought is that you’re going to be a vagrant living under a bridge — stop. Try to reset your thinking, which is effectively what CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy, does. Every time you have an anxious or hopeless thought, try to challenge it by finding another more reasonable, flexible and rational perspective. 

Cognitive Behavioural Theories hold that our feelings and behaviour are secondary to our thoughts. We have seen already that people are interpreting a tight, anxious chest or airways as the early onset of pneumonia linked to Covid-19 and panicking accordingly.

No one wants to be complacent at a time like this and worry can keep us safe. If I am suitably worried about catching Covid-19, I am more inclined to socially distance and wash my hands. When we become anxious, we tend to overestimate the potential for danger, imagine the worst possible scenario, experience dysfunctional thoughts that lead to extreme emotions and sometimes maladaptive behaviour. There may, for example, be a rise in obsessive hand washing at the moment in people who already have a propensity for obsessive anxiety and an exaggerated fear of germs. 

Those depressed feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can reflect a negative view of the self. Cognitive theories of depression show that depressed individuals view themselves more negatively, their self-esteem suffers, and consequently, they have little or no self-confidence. They do not believe they have any control or that they can help themselves to feel better, resulting in an urge to give up on life. 

Some may find pervasive feelings of despair overcome by finding meaning and purpose. Many have volunteered, forcing their attention away from the spread of the virus onto the question of how to respond. 

Revaluate the probability of the threat occurring. Check the statistical chances of catching this virus rather than evaluating your chances from distressing images and stories seen in headlines. Severity versus likelihood. People mix these things up. The seriousness of ending up in the hospital with Covid-19 would be 100 per cent awful but the possibility of it happening is not 100 per cent. Try not to let your thoughts and emotions get the upper hand at a time like this. 

There is also a difference between an appropriate worried response and anxiety. We bandy the word anxiety about readily these days, but how does it manifest and what does it mean? Symptoms include feeling persistently nervous and on edge, not being able to control worrying or being able to sit still and feeling that something terrible might happen most of the time. When we are very anxious, we tend to feel a sense of imminent catastrophe, and the pandemic makes it worse.

We are living in times that a few months ago were unimaginable. Days of high anxiety, but with ways of coping, we can mitigate the emotional disaster while we wait to see what’s on the other side.