by Heather Andronicos
For a lot of people, the Coronavirus pandemic was a watershed moment for their sense of stability and brought about an unprecedented sense of helplessness and fear. For people with anxiety disorders, however, this pervasive undercurrent of threat was probably not a new phenomenon. Especially for those living with generalised anxiety, health anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or social anxiety, the impacts of Coronavirus may have been amplified. Not only did they experience the effects of the pandemic alongside their communities, but for some it may have brought about the extra challenge of validating their long-held fears or beliefs that the world is an uncertain, dangerous place. Although it is still early days in the tentative process of emerging from restrictions, it is important for those in the mental health space to consider the impacts this worldwide event may have had on people trying their hardest to reckon with ‘catastrophised’ fears, only to have some of them be realised.
If you were previously living with an anxiety disorder and Coronavirus has worsened its impact on your functioning, here are some ideas of steps you can take.
Be kind to your mind
Often with the best of intentions, education and interventions for anxiety disorders can depict an anxious mind as one that is constantly lurking for the opportunity to make your day worse, creating mountains out of molehills and convincing you that the worst-case scenario is all but certain in every situation. The danger of focussing on what an anxious mind isn’t doing correctly, and how it’s negatively impacting your life, is that it can create a narrative of us needing to ‘fight’ our own brain in order to overcome anxiety. Then when experience any anxiety we can start loops of dread (‘oh no, the anxiety is coming back, I know it will only get worse from here’) or self-punitiveness (‘get it together, stop thinking like that!’) that make us even more distressed.
One counterintuitive way around this is to practice patience and compassion with your anxious mind. It can be easy to forget when anxiety is being a royal pain that the origins of anxiety disorders are often protective. Whether it be through genetics, traumatic past experiences or other biopsychosocial factors, the deeper and more primitive parts of your brain associated with fight/flight/freeze and the appraisal of threat are permanently switched on and hypersensitive to anything that could go wrong. This is your brain trying its hardest to take care of you, and not knowing that it’s actually making your daily life a lot harder than it needs to be.
Not only did you have a pre-existing tendency for anxious thinking; your brain was likely overloaded with information all Summer on catastrophic bushfires and a climate of political world tension, and then dropped into the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. No one has it all together in the current situation, let alone are expecting you to. So instead of thinking of Coronavirus anxiety as an old foe resurging for a new battle, this may be a good opportunity to try and be friends with your mind. How might it be, instead of anxiously trying not to be anxious, to remind yourself that anxiety is a completely normal reaction right now and a sign that your brain is looking out for you?
Possible is not probable
Another common feature of anxiety is thought distortions, or the tendency to process information in an unhelpful way. This is often a product of selective attention – simply put, minds with anxiety can be more prone to paying attention to information that confirms their assumptions or fears and discounting the positive information. It may play out in the current climate as avoiding leaving the home due to the ‘what if’ fear of a second wave, downplaying our astoundingly low community transmission rates and the advice of the country’s top medical experts that it is safe.
Someone experiencing this anxiety may be overestimating the risk and likelihood of harm and be struggling to keep information objectively balanced. This is where it is helpful to understand the difference between possible and probable, adjusting for new information as it arises. A few months ago, the pandemic was just emerging in Australian cities and there was no definitive way to tell the scope of the problem. Lockdowns swiftly swept the nation, on the back of expert advice that we would probably experience an outbreak if we weren’t proactive. Months later, the medical professionals tasked with making choices for the health of society have determined a lot of activities no longer pose a probable risk if carried out safely.
Based on this information, we can try and analyse what we know objectively. Is it possible you or someone you know will get coronavirus? Yes, at the time of writing 0.4% of those tested in Australia to date have returned a positive result according to the official health.gov.au website. Is it possible that if you were infected, Coronavirus would be dangerous to you? Yes, currently out of the 0.4% of positive results, 1.2% of active cases are in intensive care and the fatality rate is 1.3%. Is it looking probable that you would be one of those four per 1000 people to test positive, or that you would be in the 2.5% of the 0.4% (0.0001% of the people tested) who experienced a severe case? Not so much.
An important ingredient in fact-checking the likelihood of harm is finding the correct, unbiased information. Some news sources base their journalism on sensationalist headlines, clickbait or subjective interpretations of information to increase the likelihood of engaging people. Using these as your main source of news can be a triggering experience for anyone, let alone someone with a brain predisposed to anxiety. The best objective information on Coronavirus can be sourced from federal or state government official websites, or dedicated pages with the World Health Organisation.
You know you best
Even if you are at a small and ever-reducing risk of direct health impacts from Coronavirus, it is important to remember that a world-wide event such as this has ripple effects. We would expect individuals to have a wide range of experiences in their recovery from this, and the definition of ‘OK’ will be a lot more fluid for a while as we all grapple with this.
No two people with anxiety disorders experience them the same way, and you are your own expert on your triggers and symptoms. If you’re currently supported by professionals in managing your diagnosis, it would be advisable to keep connected with them throughout this recovery period. Otherwise, Lilley Place has a large team of psychologists experienced in a wide range of anxiety disorders, who can help you bring HOPE back into the post-Coronavirus picture.