Is coronavirus affecting your mental health?

One of our volunteers, Kara, shares her thoughts on the virus we’re all talking about and especially how it affects people – like her – who are already dealing with high levels of anxiety.

The coronavirus is currently sweeping though western society leaving chaos and devastation in its wake. The general public; savvy industrial folk that we are, have entered into full panic preparation mode. Toilet rolls (and pasta!) at the ready, the mass shopping exodus a distant memory, we’ve locked up the elderly and we’re debating that perhaps the primary schools at least should be shutdown for a while!  Well it makes sense right, it makes sense to be scared, doesn’t it?

Well in truth, we’re actually seeing the psychological impact on a society that is feeling out of control. The Covid-19 virus is an unknown virus, and we are biologically triggered to protect ourselves from the unknown. Unfortunately our bodies don’t know the difference between running from an attacking animal or worrying about a health threat; therefore the flight or fight response is stimulated in either case. Very useful in a situation where we need to run away faster or to protect ourselves from an imminent threat, not so useful when dealing with a mind full of worry about an illness we’re convinced lurks around every corner!

Reassuringly however, although the coronavirus is an unknown virus, it is a virus that is very similar to many others that both the medical professionals and we personally, deal with on a weekly basis. In fact it’s very similar to a cold virus.

We all know what a cold virus brings, they’re not nice but we know how to look after ourselves and how to minimise infecting others. Keep our hands clean with proper hand washing, and cough into elbows. Unwell people need rest and hydrating. Vulnerable folk are still the same people who would be vulnerable to a nasty cold. But highlighting these practical points in the press can seem to be adding to the generalised worry of many in our society, rather than alleviating it.

There is an additional concern for those of us who suffer with anxiety-related mental health conditions, as we’re already inbuilt with a rather sensitive trigger switch which reacts quickly and strongly with these perceived threats.  High levels of emotional stress, over a considerable time period is not good for either our minds or bodies; irrelevant of what thoughts are causing the stress reflex.

So what can we do if that is us?

First and foremost stop incessant checking! Social media is not helpful in these situations, so move away from the screen. If you must check, use an medically informed site. Maybe this one from the NHS The majority of us don’t need to do frequent check ins, by all means stay aware and follow the health advice but do so selectively…

We at Second Step, also champion the importance of connection. Social connection keeps our perspective in check, it’s much easier to let your worries get the better of you when we’re not with others. Many of our courses and wellbeing groups focus on stress management techniques which are ideal to implement in times such as these. One of Second Step’s key aims is to help put you back in control, which is exactly what a person lost in a process of anxiety needs. Let’s also not underestimate how much a well-shared joke can help, especially when our mind is running amok!

Practicing hearing your feelings and putting a more productive thought process in place, can also be useful. Write them down perhaps, and then put them away? 

Or another idea, give yourself a twenty minute window each day to explore the updates, thinking freely but telling your mind that is the time allocated; so if the thought processes emerge at another time, remind yourself of your window and employ distraction techniques.

In particular practical distraction such as cleaning, may alleviate the symptoms, as you’re working with the human instinct of needing to do something when in the threat of crisis. A thought diary or mindfulness could also be useful tools to control runaway anxiety.

For me, when dealing with anxiety related symptoms I need to ground myself, reminding myself that the world still goes on and the elements are bigger than my worries. I use getting out into nature as a mindfulness exercise. If I was feeling particularly turbulent I would head somewhere (Sand Bay or Brean Down Fort) where the wind is likely to be roaring and the water shows its power. I find nature’s ferocity calms both my mind and my soul.

All in all, simple hygiene measures are a great idea but psychological distress is not. So don’t suffer alone, keep talking, and stay aware of your own mental health needs.

Panic buying in Britain
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