Anxiety: The Coronavirus

By Brian Robinson.

A new test for us all.

People suffering with health anxiety will be finding life difficult enough without the added complication of the Coronavirus. On the other hand, I recently heard a doctor say that we should all be acting like someone with Contamination OCD. So, should we all be feeling anxious; should we all be contamination obsessed; and should we all have lost our peace of mind?

Many people will instinctively see some truth in the doctor’s comment. And yes of course we should all be taking more care; and yes of course we should all be paying more attention to hygiene. However, even though the doctor’s statement goes a bit too far, this gives us an opportunity to compare and contrast how we might find a way through the current pandemic without necessarily living the life of an OCD sufferer.

We are all having thoughts about the virus frequently throughout each day. The news is full of it so there is no escape from that. But these thoughts should not be seen as intrusive. They are concerning, yes, but thoughts that raise our concern, where appropriate, should be seen as both positive and healthy. These thoughts only become unhealthy when we dwell on them too much; when they lead to us catastrophising about the future; or when they trigger a chain of unhealthy ‘What Ifs’.

Feelings and thoughts tend to go hand in glove, so it can be difficult to separate them. For example, we can have concerning thoughts, but we can also have concerning feelings. Therefore, feeling concerned about the Coronavirus must also be entirely appropriate. After all, the virus is a serious issue.

We might also argue that it is now normal to feel sad, especially for those who are ill or dying. It may also be the new normal, for example, to feel frustrated over the lack of personal protection equipment. These new feelings are real and shouldn’t be denied. However, they only become unhealthy when our sadness becomes overwhelming; or when our frustration tips into anger over things which we really have no control over.

But in reality, feelings of concern can be surprisingly relaxing emotions. We tend to act on our concerns and we gain comfort from that. And they sit in stark contrast with feelings like worry, fretting and blind panic. These tend to go around in circles and nothing positive springs from them. And moreover, they can be counter-productive and have the potential to adversely affect our immune system. Staying calm but concerned, is always the better option regardless of our circumstances.

It makes sense to reduce risk.

Now we come to the question of actions. What actions should we be taking to manage the risk of becoming infected with the Coronavirus? For the contamination OCD sufferer actions are always problematic. These sufferers find it difficult to set limits as to how much time they spend decontaminating. And they also may find it difficult to be clear about where their decontamination efforts should be targeted. Another way to express this, would be to say they find it hard to set action boundaries.

For the non-OCD sufferer, it might help to first look at extremes of behaviour and see how we feel about them. For example, how would we feel if we spent every waking hour decontaminating our houses? And for the other extreme, how would we feel if we did nothing to increase our standards of safeguarding or hygiene? The answer is we would want to be somewhere in between. We would want to find a middle way.

So, what does that mean in real terms? The first thing to say is there will be no attempt in this article to set out good standards of behaviour or hygiene. This will be more about how we might arrive at those standards. And with that in mind, it seems logical to say that the actions we take to safeguard ourselves should always be in accordance with the risks. Obviously, this varies between individuals so the risk assessments will vary from person to person. And likewise, the risk factors may go up and down as the spread of the virus waxes and wanes. What this tells us, is that our plans to keep safe may have to change from week to week and we should be flexible enough to adapt to the fluctuating levels of risk.

A good way to test if our actions are appropriate, is to ask how we feel about what we are doing? Do we feel comfortable and confident that the measures we are taking are appropriate and sufficient? Again, this might vary from person to person. People will set different limits as to the lengths they are prepared to go in order to avoid the virus. We may strike a variety of different balances between the quality of life we are prepared to sacrifice and the risks we are prepared to take. But feeling comfortable in what we are doing is key. This allows our emotions to settle and our peace of mind to continue.

To summarise then, ideally, we would want to feel relaxed and take comfort from the fact that we are doing all we reasonably can to manage the risks. That does not mean to say we will feel happy about this. We are simply doing what we have to do. But a calm and accepting attitude in the face of adversity is the best way to prepare our immune system for the challenges it might face. The alternative, i.e. fighting or railing against the virus, will only put our bodies under more stress and that is the last thing we want.

And finally, the way we assess and manage risk may be scientific and good at reducing risks, but it will rarely be mathematical in the sense that we can eliminate risk completely. We shouldn’t expect mathematical answers. At the moment, we are all really doing is playing a waiting game. We know we can’t isolate forever, so we are doing the best we can until the right treatments and vaccines arrive.

Going back to the doctor’s comment, we may be sharing some of the characteristics of an OCD sufferer albeit in a mild form, but we do not have to sacrifice our peace of mind or become slaves to the virus.

The answer will come.

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