The coronavirus pandemic has left the world on edge. Social isolation and the lack of certainty surrounding the spread and containment of the virus is impacting both people’s physical and mental health.
A fear of having no control over a specific situation or life in general, along with lack of ability to cope with uncertainty are common characteristics of most anxiety disorders, Anxiety UK CEO Nicky Lidbetter explains. This means that it’s completely understandable that in these unprecedented circumstances, people with pre-existing anxiety are facing heighted challenges right now.
Excessive worry about the unknown, combined with a feeling of lack of control is the root cause of many anxiety disorders. The coronavirus pandemic is delivering doses of these unsettling scenarios to the whole world on a daily basis - communicated through the media and other information outlets.
This level of consistent worry can have devastating implications for people’s mental and psychological well-being.
So how can we combat these challenges and protect our mental health?
Set a routine
Overwhelming thoughts of a lengthy period of restricted movement or isolation can aggravate existing mental health struggles and can trigger anxiety for anyone.
It is important to take life one day at the time. Divide your days into manageable chunks and get into a routine. Get up at a regular time, shower, have breakfast and make a plan for the day. Giving yourself structure will help give you a feeling of control, along with helping to keep you motivated and productive.
Of course, like ‘normal’ life - it’s okay to be flexible (to some extent) with your routine. Taking breaks or time-out to read some of that book you’ve been getting round to or picking up a new hobby can be great use of time, but working through those to-do lists and keeping structure is really important to maintain balance.
Keep connected with people
Staying in contact with people on a daily basis is really important to help maintain a sense of normality and can help reduce feelings of isolation.
Whether it’s Whatsapp messages, voice notes, video calls or old fashioned phone calls - scheduling in regular catch ups or even spontaneous calls is a great way to remind each other - that we’re all in this together and we’re not alone.
Wash your hands - but not excessively
Washing your hands is important because it helps to kill viruses that may be on your hands.
For people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and some types of anxiety, being constantly told to wash your hands - can be difficult to hear.
For many people with OCD ritualistic hand washing is a debilitating aspect of the disorder, meaning that instructions to repeatedly wash your hands, can be especially anxiety provoking and triggering.
The charity OCD Action has seen an increase in support requests from people whose fears have become focused on the coronavirus pandemic.
Hand hygiene recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO) is to regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water - excessive levels of hand washing is not necessary.
OCD Action says the problem to look out for is the function of the hand wash - for example, is the washing being carried out for the recommended amount of time to reduce the risk of spreading of the virus - or is it being done ritualistically in a specific order to feel "just right"?
The lack of opportunity to go outside and exercise or take a trip to the gym can make anyone feel anxious, especially if this is part of your daily or weekly routine.
There’s lots of ways to keep active without leaving the house and without the need for fancy equipment. Personal trainers, fitness enthusiasts and athletes are all taking to social media (Instagram Live, as one example) to provide free home workouts for people of all ages under lockdown or in self-isolation. No need for weights or gym gear - cartons or milk or water are making excellent alternatives.
You might feel more comfortable exercising along with a friend or family member - taking to skype or Facetime can be a good option and another great way to keep in contact with others.
People have been running around their living rooms, stairs and gardens - and one French man recently ran a marathon up and down his 7 metre balcony. Perhaps attempting a marathon might be a step into the extreme - but getting creative with the way you exercise is good for your physical health, and you could find yourself having some great laughs too!
Eat a balanced diet
Keeping to normal meal times will help create a valuable structure for your day.
If you’re currently under lockdown and anxious to leave the house to purchase food - consider online delivery options (if available), or you could ask someone to drop off food for you. It’s important to keep sufficient food at home to enable you to prepare balanced meals - but not necessary to purchase to excess.
Taking a trip to the supermarket or grocery store when needed - having followed hygiene recommendations from WHO - can offer a break from the confinement of your home and provide a valuable task to complete during the day.
Those who are currently facing or have recovered from an eating disorder could be at particular risk of a setback during these challenging times.
It is vital to ensure you eat three regular balanced meals per day, as this will help to keep your blood sugar levels stable and can help regulate your mood and energy levels.
Limit news intake and be careful what you read
Fake news is rife across the internet on a regular basis - with no exceptions being made in terms of the coronavirus.
Staying informed about the situation via reliable sources is a sensible option, but limit your news and social media intake to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
The unknown nature of coronavirus disease means we are faced with many more weeks or months of this pandemic as part of our realities. Mind Charity in the UK recommends accessing sunlight where possible - this could be stepping out on to your balcony or sitting by an open window for 10-20 minutes per day, if you don’t have access to outside space. Exercising, keeping hydrated and eating well, will all help the body have a little downtime - avoiding exhaustion and burnout.
Anxiety UK suggests following the "Apple" mindfulness technique to help respond to anxiety and worries.
- Acknowledge: Notice and acknowledge the uncertainty as it comes to mind.
- Pause: Don't react as you normally do. Don't react at all. Pause and breathe.
- Pull back: Tell yourself this is just the worry talking, and this apparent need for certainty is not helpful and not necessary. It is only a thought or feeling. Don't believe everything you think. Thoughts are not statements or facts.
- Let go: Let go of the thought or feeling. It will pass. You don't have to respond to them. You might imagine them floating away in a bubble or cloud.
- Explore: Explore the present moment, because right now, in this moment, all is well. Notice your breathing and the sensations of your breathing. Notice the ground beneath you. Look around and notice what you see, what you hear, what you can touch, what you can smell. Right now. Then shift your focus of attention to something else - on what you need to do, on what you were doing before you noticed the worry, or do something else - mindfully with your full attention.