Anxiety during COVID-19: The rise of an emotional pandemic


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The Coronavirus and its associated language and terminology is almost certainly on the tip of everyone’s tongue. We have all heard of and are (hopefully) practicing social distancing to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

Unfortunately, it maybe that this virus pandemic is clearing an unwelcome path for an emotional pandemic to follow in its wake. Whilst the general public are on the whole complying with measures to ‘flatten the curve’, recent research data, indicate an increase in the number of cases of people feeling overwhelming anxiety.

What is anxiety?

It is in fact a useful human emotion; it occurs when we face a potentially harmful threat or trigger. Not only are feelings of anxiety normal, it is necessary for our survival.

In essence, our minds perform a risk assessment on a perceived threat/trigger causing a release of specific stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) resulting in excessive perspiration; heavy, fast breathing; rapid heartbeat; stomach pains; shaking; dry mouth and alike. Our body and mind prepare to physically confront or flee any potential threats to our safety, referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. Once a perceived threatening situation has been resolved, our bodies and thoughts return to normal.

It is safe to assume that the threat from a sabre toothed tiger is rather less pressing now than it was for our ancestors. Today’s typical anxieties revolve around work, money, health, family or other situations which require our attention, but not necessarily our ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Although this type of anxiety is unpleasant, it is an emotion that is fleeting.

However, if we have recurring worries or intrusive thoughts causing disproportionate levels of anxiety, the American Psychological Association (APA) refers to this as an anxiety disorder. The APA indicate anxiety disorders can interfere with our daily lives due to its intensity and debilitating nature.

It is important to note that experiences of anxiety disorders may vary from person to person and can include racing thoughts; difficulties in concentrating; feelings of dread, panic or impending doom; persistent over thinking; heightened sensitivities or alertness; changes in appetite; feelings of wanting to escape from the situation; insomnia and or dissociation (i.e. watching situations unfold without feeling emotionally connected to them).

There are many types of anxiety disorders, however for the purpose of this article lets focus on two specific types, Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Panic disorder.

GAD is the most common anxiety disorder, figures from the US indicate that in any given year 6.8million adults are diagnosed with this . It is a chronic and persistent worry about non-specific situations, life events or objects often lasting for a prolonged period of time. Some people with GAD may go onto experience anxiety attacks, this manifests as excessive worry and restlessness.

Some of us may have experienced or know someone who has had a panic attack. This is often described as having an abrupt onset of intense fear and discomfort accompanied by palpitations, fast heart rate, sweating, shaking and sensations of shortness of breath. Panic disorder is characterised by repeated, unexpected panic attacks as well as the fear of experiencing another one.

If you feel that you can relate to some or all of the descriptions above, it is advisable for you to visit your GP to talk about how you are feeling, and to obtain a diagnosis.

Fears over COVID-19 can take an emotional toll. It is the uncertainty surrounding this novel virus that most people with or without anxiety are finding difficult to deal with. At the time of writing this piece, we have absolutely no idea when this virus will be eradicated, nor when we as a worldwide society can go back to some semblance of normality. Unfortunately, this makes it all too easy for us to feel an overwhelming sense of impending doom, dread and panic. This may perhaps send some of us into a tailspin of negativity and catastrophe.

Fortunately, there are steps and techniques we can use to manage our anxiety and fears even in this unprecedented and frankly extraordinary time. Here are 3 things you can do to help yourself.

1. Limit your exposure to media

Panic often ensues when people overestimate a threat and underestimate their ability to cope. This pandemic serves as a perfect recipe for this, since we do not know the true extent of the reach of the Coronavirus nor do we have any viable vaccinations available as of yet.

Do stay informed but use trustworthy sites. The World Health Organisation recommend that people check their news source to prevent the spread of misinformation.

Stop looking at media if you begin to feel overwhelmed. Limiting media consumption to specific times will help reduce feelings of overwhelm.

2. Focus on things that you can control

Life is full of uncertainty, but never so much as we have today. With the far-reaching consequences of COVID-19, the loss of control has never been so apparent.

We often use worrying as a tool during times of uncertainty. Unfortunately worrying does not help. Instead it creates a dark cloud that literally hangs over you, essentially stealing your sunshine, that is, your ability to enjoy and live in the present. Although it is impossible for us not to worry, scheduling a worry time is an effective cognitive behavioural therapy technique. This allows us the time to acknowledge the worry, consider what is causing it, thus allowing us to consider potential solutions to stop the worry.

Another effective technique is to refocus and take actions over the aspects of our life that we can control. For example, if you have had your salary reduced during this challenging time, you still have control over how you manage your income, you can switch to alternative supermarkets or substitute food brands. You may decide to attend zoom webinars relating to your industry, networking with the attendees, this may lead to new opportunities. Similarly, health concerns may be on top of your list of worries, you can take control of this by staying at home. If you choose to venture out, you can take precautionary measures by wearing gloves and masks, as well as maintaining a safe physical distance.

This method of refocus helps to move away from ruminating and worrying about a problem into being optimistic and pragmatic instead.

3. Focus on the things that you are grateful for

Studies show cultivating gratitude rewires the brain to feel healthier and happier. What can we be grateful for in the midst of a pandemic?

a) Health care workers, for their dedication and commitment to patients whilst putting their own safety at risk.

b) Technology, without this we could not stay connected with our loved ones or continue to perform our duties at work or in education.

c) An unprecedented time to reflect on what is important.

Creating a gratitude board is a simple and effective method to display what we are most thankful for. The more gratitude we express, the happier we can become.

Humanity will collectively weather this pandemic storm. But in the interim, we must do all we can to manage our emotional health and wellbeing. Exhibiting an abundance of kindness and empathy to ourselves and each other should be our new normal, especially during the darkness, before our new post COVID-19 dawn.

-Tess Pereira is one of Dubai’s sought-after Transformational Coaches and Talking Therapists. She is a Master NLP Practitioner with over 15 years of experience empowering clients to make positive life changes



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