Coronavirus anxiety: Recognising the impact a pandemic can have on your mental health – Health

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The coronavirus pandemic has profoundly disrupted the ways in which we live and work, and many of us are feeling understandably stressed, confused, and frightened.

All of this is completely normal, said Olivia Fisher, a mental health researcher at Queensland University of Technology.

Feelings of worry and unease can be expected during a stressful event, but it’s important to manage our stress before it turns into more severe anxiety or panic.

“If you’re really overwhelmed or feeling anxious more days than not, that’s when you need to be seeking some support,” she said.

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We all respond differently to crisis

In dealing with stress or anxiety related to COVID-19, we’re likely to behave in different ways.

Some of us might choose to distract ourselves and try to switch off from what’s going on, while others will seek constant reassurance from friends or family, or obsessively check the news.

According to Reach Out, signs of stress can include dips in mood, a lack of motivation, muscle tension, headaches, insomnia, irritability, and restlessness.

But how we each respond to stressful situations depends largely on our personal circumstances and personality, said clinical psychologist Michael Kyrios.

“Humans are pre-programmed to continuously estimate how likely it is that something negative is going to happen, and how severe that negative event or impact is going to be,” said Professor Kyrios.

“People who are uncertain of themselves, or lack trust in others or the world because of their background, are going to be prone to overestimating the likelihood or severity of danger … and take more intense actions.”

In the context of COVID-19, Professor Kyrios said some anxiety or concern was warranted, especially if it pushed people to take extra precautions with personal hygiene or physical distancing.

It could, however, in some cases, tip over into undue panic, and lead to unhelpful behaviours and thoughts.

“People who have got a tendency towards obsessive compulsive disorder or anxiety disorders, for example, might start having panic attacks,” he said.

“We’ve seen elements of panic in the community with the stockpiling of toilet paper.”

Everyone differs in their need for control, their tolerance for uncertainty, and their ability to be resilient, he said.

“All of these things work together with our sense of threat.”

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People at risk of distress

Many of us are already feeling the mental health impacts of the pandemic and the social distancing measures that seek to contain it.

Those of us with existing mental health problems are particularly at risk of distress, as well as those who are socially isolated because of age, disability, or the fact they live alone, Dr Fisher said.

But with many people now facing the prospect of unemployment or financial insecurity, the mental health impacts of COVID-19 were likely to be even more widespread, Dr Fisher said.

“I think a lot of people have suddenly found themselves in a very vulnerable position,” she said.

“It’s the people who have lost their jobs, their purpose, their sense of identity, and sense of belonging in a work team.

“When all of that is suddenly taken away, those people can certainly be a high risk of experiencing anxiety and other mental health problems.”

Looking after your mental health

Beyond Blue has put together tips to help people take care of their mental health during home isolation, but they’re relevant for many of us who are simply physically distancing:

Stay connected, stay healthy and switch off when you can

Given some of the strategies we normally use to manage our mental health are restricted, it’s important to adapt and develop new ways to cope, Dr Fisher said.

Research shows positive social support improves our capacity to cope with stress.

Staying connected with friends, family and colleagues virtually (via social media or video chat) or over the phone is key, as is prioritising adequate sleep, regular exercise, and activities we find relaxing.

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When it comes to media consumption, Dr Fisher said switching off completely wasn’t a “realistic expectation” for most people, especially given the unfolding nature of COVID-19.

But she said it was important to stick to trusted sources, like the World Health Organisation, and “minimise the rest”.

It’s a message echoed by the WHO, who recommends people “minimise watching, reading or listening to news that causes [them] to feel anxious or distressed”, and instead “seek information updates at specific times during the day, once or twice”.

While stress and sadness are normal and natural responses to COVID-19, Dr Fisher said it was important for people to seek professional help if anxiety or depression symptoms started to interfere with their work, relationships or ability to manage day-to-day tasks.

Professor Kyrios said it was a good idea to check out Head to Health, or get in contact your local GP.

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