• People with anxiety might have trouble dealing with the threat of COVID-19. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Anxiety is spreading like the wildfires we only just put out - which can be particularly tricky for people who don't need another reason to feel anxious.
Samuel Leighton-Dore

3 Mar 2020 - 1:47 PM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2020 - 2:04 PM

I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (or GAD) when I was five years old. I'd always been a highly sensitive kid, but the additional stress of sustained bullying by other kindergarten students did something to my brain and suddenly everyday tasks felt a lot harder.

They still do.

It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that those like me - those living with anxiety and other mental illnesses - are struggling to digest and respond to 24-hour news coverage around COVID-19.

For those of us whose thought processes are predominantly characterised by excessive, exaggerated anxiety and worry about everyday life events, often with no rational reasons for worry, the coronavirus poses a unique challenge: accepting the very real need to be sensible, informed and vigilant, while resisting the 'fight or flight' panic that comes so naturally with the acknowledgment of a looming threat.

This is made harder than it needs to be by the rapid spreading of misinformation on social media, some of which is being unduly validated and amplified by various news organisations. Gargling with bleach? Don't do that. Packages and letters from China? Open them! They're fine. 

While so much of this misinformation is clearly bogus, when coupled with sensationalist news headlines and context-free statements from politicians, anxiety is spreading like the wildfires we only just put out - which can be particularly tricky for people who don't necessarily need a reason to feel anxious.

"This new illness certainly is frightening and needs attention, but it’s important to note that far more people die from an illness that’s all too familiar — the seasonal flu," reads a somewhat-but-not-entirely-comforting article by the American Psychological Association (APA).

(TL;DR: This is bad, but not as bad as other stuff we're already dealing with.)

In an additional podcast episode recorded by the APA about 'coronavirus anxiety', University professor Baruch Fischhoff, PhD, explains that "the most useful thing that people can do at this stage is to find some trusted sources of information like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the World Health Organisation, or some of our major media, and just stick to them for information."

He adds: "They're professionals. They do the best job they can of gathering and communicating the information. That will also protect you from the irresponsible, the rumour mongers, the people who are using this as an opportunity to sell things or to inflame racial hatred or ethnic hatred."

Still, with supermarkets around the world grappling with "long lines and slow supplies", and the additional pressures of ensuring a safe supply of medications for anxiety and depression (many of which shouldn't be tapered off without professional supervision), those battling mental illness are facing an uphill battle; one already exacerbated by a growing trend of eco-anxiety resulting, in part, from Australia's catastrophic bush fire season.

Speaking to ABC news in the United States, counsellor Mark Sigmund ofRetreat Behavioral Health admits the coronavirus poses an easy trap for those with anxiety, but that it's important to combat growing panic. 

"It's really important to come back down to earth, look at the data and to take precautions," says Sigmund.

He adds: "You have to challenge the thoughts with 'catastrophising' and blowing things up in your head. It's easy to go down that road but you have to challenge it. You have to look at the data."

So, if you're like me an dealing with a spike in your already difficult anxiety, know that you're not alone. But know also that our bodies are doing what they do best, protecting us, and our minds are capable of overcoming it.

If you need immediate assistance or support contact Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au

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