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How to prevent coronavirus from affecting your anxiety

If you are living with anxiety, you may be finding your thoughts and feelings related to the coronavirus outbreak incredibly overwhelming. We understand that it can feel extremely challenging to navigate through the news and information at the minute, and that it is likely having a knock on effect on your daily life, impacting your mood, sleep and appetite, and leaving you feeling drained.

Coronavirus is at the forefront of all our minds, and is something that is causing many people to worry. Worry and fear are completely natural emotions that we are programmed to experience. But for those with mental health conditions like anxiety, we recognise that this fear can be so intense that it becomes a burden which alters thoughts, feelings, mood and behaviours.

While it is important for us all to stay up to date with the latest information, it is also crucial that we remain safe and sensible to reduce the impact it has on our mental wellbeing.

We spoke to Dr Natasha Bijlani to put together advice for people looking for ways to manage their anxiety symptoms during the current coronavirus outbreak.

Switch off from social media

It is likely that most of the posts you are seeing at the minute are related to coronavirus. Scrolling through these can overload you with information and anxious thoughts, causing your anxious feelings to surge.

Try to take a pause from social media. Delete the apps from your phone, temporarily suspend your accounts and keep your phone in a drawer in another room to the one you regularly sit in. Alternatively, spend time thinking about the accounts that are causing you to experience the most anxious thoughts and feelings, and mute and un-follow them for the time being. Also, if you do want to continue using social media, set yourself a strict time limit every day.

Remember you control what appears in your feeds, so take action and make sure you are looking after yourself at this time.

Turn off the 24-hour news cycle

The government and news outlets do need to keep the public informed as coronavirus is such an important matter. But many people, with and without anxiety, struggle with the 24-hour news cycle. Try not to have the news on the TV or radio constantly, and switch off any news alerts on your phone.

Instead, allow yourself 10 to 15 minutes once or twice a day to check on any important updates, either from a reputable news source, or from or NHS 111 Online.

And if your anxiety is too intense, switch off altogether and get a friend or family member to relay any important updates to you. That way you have control over the information that you receive.

Stay away from websites that will provoke your anxiety

There may be certain things that you are worrying about, so avoid any related websites. For example if you’re worrying about your health or the health of others, health-related Google searches, message board and forums are likely to intensify your anxiety rather than alleviate it.

Instead, focus on impartial, reliable sources of information rather than giving in to a compulsion that will only serve to feed your anxiety.

Focus on reducing your symptoms

Learn and practise active relaxation techniques every day. This could include deep breathing, and mindfulness activities like drawing, crafting or reading.

It is also important to spend time doing things that you enjoy, as appreciating the here and now can help to stop us worrying about the future. You could even try something new and practise a skill you’ve been wanted to hone for a while.

Watching yourself get better at something over the course of a few days or weeks, whether that is a foreign language, a particular exercise, a new recipe or finishing a book you started months ago, can make us feel good in the moment and give us a mental break from our anxious thoughts.

Pay attention to the present

At present, it can be so easy to spend our time worrying about the future, and the plans we are unsure will happen. To stop yourself ruminating over what may or may not go ahead, try and shift your thinking to the present. Set out a schedule for each day, trying not to plan for more than the next two or three days ahead at a time, and allow yourself to focus on this instead. We cannot control the future or the situation we find ourselves in, but we can always adjust our response if we put effort into it. Completing our daily schedules can help us to feel accomplished rather than disappointed, which can be very empowering especially right now in the face of so much fear and uncertainty.

Use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness techniques to refocus

The coronavirus pandemic is a global crisis at present but it would be better to try and accept the reality of the situation in a calm and factual manner, rather than letting your anxious thoughts take over. CBT and mindfulness can help you do that. 

Firstly, acknowledge and accept how you feel. If you are worried, sad or fearful, remember that it is extremely understandable. We are all going through something that is very different from our usual lives.

Acknowledge the worried thought, but don’t let that thought disrupt your feelings. Accept that the thought is there and imagine distancing yourself from it, so that it gets smaller and smaller, or further and further away. And, then push it away, and imagine it blowing away as though it is a leaf in the wind. Once it is gone, focus on the world around you and look at your daily schedule for something to do.

Your mind may also tend to go to the worst possible scenario. When you acknowledge an anxious thought, you can also spend some time questioning it and coming up with a more rational phrase to concentrate on instead. Some examples to help with this include:

  • If you find yourself thinking “I’m going to get the coronavirus”, focus instead on “I am following government and NHS guidelines around social distancing, so my chances of getting coronavirus are small”
  • If you are worrying about spreading coronavirus, again think: “I am following all guidelines around social distancing and self-isolation, so the risk of me getting and passing on coronavirus to another person is very slim”
  • If you are thinking “I’m going to run out of essentials and not be able to top up”, remind yourself that “I am well prepared for this situation and I will use all my items sensibly. The supermarkets and pharmacies are still open, so there is a high probability that I will be able to access what I need”
  • If you are thinking: “I don’t know what the next weeks or months will hold” try swapping this to “Everyone is feeling uncertain and that is okay. Everyone is working together to bring this to an end. I accept that some things need to change and will change. And I understand that this will eventually pass.”

By trying to practise some of these techniques on a daily basis, you will be able to develop coping strategies that could help you with looking after yourself whenever your mind drifts to a worried thought. 

Seek medical support online or over the telephone

If you feel that your anxiety is continuing to spiral and lead to significant distress, reach out for support. Just because you are at home, this doesn’t mean there is no help available to you. Many GPs and other doctors will be providing telephone or video consultations, so try to book one of these, and they will be able to advise on the best way for you to manage.

If you have been receiving psychotherapy, find out if this can be continued online or over the phone to minimise face-to-face contact and yet enable you to receive much needed professional guidance. 

And, if you would like to find out about the online therapy sessions that are available at Priory Group, where you are able to talk with a highly qualified specialist experienced in supporting people with anxiety disorders, please visit our Priory Connect page for more information on the service.

Page reviewed by Dr Natasha Bijlani (FRCPsych, MBBS), Consultant Psychiatrist based at Priory Hospital Roehampton London

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