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Managing anxiety about COVID

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

It’s now almost two years since Covid-19 first appeared in the UK and began changing everyday life as we know it. Some people have been left with post-traumatic stress disorder after being gravely sick in intensive care. Others have been left grieving for loved ones. Millions have been impacted by fear about catching the virus. In fact, a UK survey indicated that anxiety, sleep problems, and alcohol intake increased by up to 50% during the first year of the pandemic particularly in those parts of the population at increased financial and health risk.

At the start of the pandemic, scientists and experts knew next to nothing about Covid-19 let alone it’s treatment. The fast spread of the virus and the big unknowns created fear across the population. The government introduced measures including lockdown, mask wearing, and physical distancing to slow down transmission rates.

According to official figures the number of people dying from the virus has fallen from 1,164 (25th Jan 2021) to 220 (18th Jan 2022). There have also been reductions in hospitalisation. This is likely to be due to the roll out of the vaccination programme. As a result of this, many people have returned to a version of “normal life” returning to workplaces, restaurants and shops. This is set to continue with the new regulations for self-isolating coming into effect.

However, the idea of returning to “normal” fills some people with dread and apprehension. Some experts argue that the government has handled the pandemic, at times, by using fear as a way of ensuring compliance to safety measures. This, albeit unintentionally, may have contributed to feelings of anxiety and excessive worry in the population. (The same experts argue that a more effective way of ensuring compliance without creating anxiety is to help empower people through effective health education).

Unsurprisingly then, in spite of the improved figures and the vaccine rollout, a proportion of the population is now experiencing what has been coined “covid-19 anxiety syndrome”. This concept was first suggested in 2020 by two UK professors who noticed people showing a particular set of features in response to the pandemic. They argued that covid-19 anxiety syndrome is characterised by:

Compulsive checking for symptoms of Covid, despite not being in a high-risk scenarios

Avoidance of public places in general

Obsessive cleaning

Obsessive worrying

Excessive threat avoidance, including being unwilling to take public transport and an excessive cleaning of hands.

The researchers assembled preliminary data from self-reported surveys of nearly 300 adults in the UK in February 2021. Results suggested that covid-19 anxiety syndrome was an independent predictor of generalised anxiety and depression during the pandemic.

These results must be treated with caution. Expert Dr Tim Nicholson is concerned that the self-reported survey method used makes it difficult to tell whether a participant was predisposed to these characteristics due to undiagnosed conditions such as OCD. Further research is therefore ongoing.

You may be asking yourself at this point.

“But surely it is normal and reasonable to be afraid of the virus?” This perspective is both validated and challenged by mental health researcher Professor Spada:

Fear is normal. You and I are supposed to fear the virus because it’s dangerous. The difference, however, in terms of developing a psychopathological response, is whether you end up behaving in … overly safe ways that lock you into the fear.”

Dr Joel Sheridan’s tips on what you can do to manage Covid-19 anxiety:

1. Beware of emotional reasoning If something feels dangerous then we tend to assume it must be dangerous. However, whilst our emotions can be useful they can also mislead us. So, the next time you feel alarmed ask yourself “if I was not feeling this way, would I really regard this as quite so dangerous?” A useful metaphor here is a fire alarm that has been set too high so that it keeps going off even when there is no fire.

2. Follow NHS guidelines Following national guidelines is more effective than listening to what your anxious mind is saying and is far less likely to perpetuate your anxiety.

3. Set yourself challenges and start slowly If you haven't socialised for ages it is likely to be anxiety- provoking to meet groups of friends. You may indeed experience both social anxiety and health anxiety. Start with meeting friends 1-2-1 and work your way up.

4. Be aware of the increased risk for other conditions Research suggests that covid-19 anxiety syndrome can put you at increased risk of post-traumatic stress, general stress, anxiety and health anxiety.. If you find yourself suffering from symptoms of these conditions consider seeking professional psychological support as all of these conditions can be successfully treated.

5. Adopt a low information diet High levels of exposure to news and images about the pandemic will only exacerbate stress and anxiety levels. So why not restrict your social media and news consumption? If you are feeling radical you could experiment with checking social media only once or twice a week and turning off those notifications. You might avoid watching the news or checking the BBC news app for updates. Monitor your stress levels over time and see whether they come down as a result.

6. Learn some tools to manage anxiety and worry One simple technique I teach clients is “worry sorting”.

Grab a piece of paper and spend a few minutes doing this now. Write down in bullet points the worries swirling round your mind. It is important to be as brief as possible for each one. Now categorise these as either A B or C. A= Things that you can action right away. B= Things that you can action but are waiting on something. C= Things that you cannot do anything about. At this point you have already made some progress. You have moved on from having lots of abstract worries to differentiating them. Now, take this a step further. Action the “A’s” and schedule the “Bs’” in your calendar. You are now just left with C’s. For these we need to learn the art of “Letting go”.

7. Letting go of the worries we cannot influence Try out the visualisation “Leaves on the stream”. Sit comfortably in your chair with your feet on the ground and close your eyes. Picture yourself sitting on the bank of a stream. For every thought that pops into your mind, visualise placing this gently on a leaf and let it float off downstream. It doesn’t matter if your thoughts are negative or positive, treat them just the same. If your mind wanders, don’t criticise yourself. Instead see this as a magic moment of awareness where you have the option of directing where your mind goes. Whenever you are ready bring yourself back in the room and ask what you noticed. Practice this once daily and you should find that your ability to get some distance on your thoughts should improve.

8. Reasons to be cheerful As humans, we are naturally drawn towards noticing the negative both in our recall of past events and in interpreting what is happening in the here and now. This tendency is at the heart of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and is founded on the cognitive model of emotion. If we are aware of this we can correct it. So make a point each week of seeking out good news such as medical progress in the management of the pandemic, drops in rates of hospitalisation from the illness, or positive stories of recovery as well as acts of bravery. You may wish to record this in a journal which you can refer to if having a bad day later on down the line.

Final thoughts

Be kind to yourself. The past two years has been incredibly tough on everyone. Be patient with yourself and others and practice the art of self-compassion. Being kind to yourself is far more likely to yield positive results than being harsh and self-critical.

Reach out. Share your struggles with a trusted friend or family member. It’s better to open up than suffer alone.

Seek professional help from a therapist. Health anxiety, OCD, PTSD and generalised anxiety can all be treated successfully with psychological treatments.

About the author

Dr Joel Sheridan is an independent Clinical Psychologist. He is passionate about helping people to overcome difficulties such as anxiety. Having worked with many patients and trained in a number of different approaches he is able to offer evidence-based treatments that are tailored to the needs of each individual. Joel lives in London and enjoys practicing mindfulness and keeping fit. Connect with Joel here:

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