A while ago, I went to a therapist. For months, I had been plagued with this persistent, inexplicable, impending sense of doom I just couldn’t shake. I wasn’t worried about anything specific, I just constantly felt like something bad was going to happen. The therapist finished the session by helplessly shrugging: “I don’t think I said anything useful.”
Then the coronavirus was labelled a pandemic, some people started getting sick and dying, other people were losing their jobs, the economy melted down, and my anxiety started seeming justified.
This crisis has been stressful for just about everyone; having existing mental health issues only makes this worse. Worried something bad is going to happen? Something bad is happening. In tears for no reason? Look at Twitter, there are a hundred reasons. Anxious? So is everyone. It’s easy to let your anxiety overwhelm you.
“It is important to remember that worry and stress about very real threats are not in themselves anxiety conditions,” says Dr Grant Blashki, lead clinical advisor at Beyond Blue. “Anxiety conditions involve unwarranted worry and excessive stress that is disproportionate to the nature of the threat.”
“It is important to remember that worry and stress about very real threats are not in themselves anxiety conditions."
Still, those with existing anxiety diagnoses are likely to struggle more with the current crisis, which can easily trigger and intensify negative ways of thinking.
Andrew Staniforth is a clinical psychologist and the head of ANU Counselling, a free, confidential, non-diagnostic counselling service for ANU students. “We know anxiety can be a signal to us that something is not okay,” Mr Staniforth says. Some anxiety is inevitable in our current climate. But, he adds, “What we need to be aware of is whether our response is in proportion to the event or situation.”
“A sense of impending doom, catastrophic expectations or thinking, being unable to go about and adjust and live life in these new ways, could potentially be evidence for an unhealthy mental health response.”
Matilda from Melbourne is an anxious extrovert, and has managed her anxiety for over half a decade. However, her current anxiety is different. “This anxiety permeates everything...Because of it, every now and again, my brain just starts screaming.” She’s tired all the time, she says, and has stopped doing almost everything. “Every decision feels utterly irrelevant or desperately important, and so either way inertia usually wins. It takes a lot of energy to return to steadiness.”
“This anxiety permeates everything...Because of it, every now and again, my brain just starts screaming.”
“My response has been to do nothing but play Animal Crossing, watch endless YouTube videos, and nap,” Stephen, from Utica, New York, says. He has anxiety and depression, and says that while he tries to do productive things, it often feels too hard. “It’s not really a way to get through it healthily,” he says. “Sorry this isn’t more uplifting, it’s just how my experience has been.”
Personally, I’ve been trying to continue to exercise, speak to my friends, and keep from falling back into disordered eating, to varying degrees of success. Mostly, I’ve just been patting my dog a lot.
Dr Blashki says that in general, people with pre-existing mental health issues might be more vulnerable during an event like a pandemic. The current crisis has disrupted people’s regular routines and self-care habits, making it easier to fall into negative thinking traps, like catastrophising. “The tendency towards nihilistic or doom and gloom perspectives can amplify distress during current events.”
That makes it more important than ever to take care of your mental health. “All of us need to be doing proactive and preventative things to help manage our day-to-day experience as it dynamically unfolds,” Mr Staniforth says. This includes creating and maintaining regular daily rhythms, eating well and exercising, doing fun things and connecting with others (not in person, of course).
Recognising unhelpful thinking and generalisations is another technique to manage anxiety.
Recognising unhelpful thinking and generalisations is another technique to manage anxiety, he adds. “This requires lots of practice to recognise unhelpful thinking and moving on to either more reality-based thoughts or accepting that there is nothing that can currently be done about the situation, but there is a multitude of choice about what we do with the time and ways we are now being asked to live.”
Amongst other advice, Dr Blashki suggests being upfront with family and friends that you’re having a hard time. “Use video chat and phone rather than just texting to ensure a more intimate experience. Schedule regular catch ups so that you don’t go for days without being in touch with those people who can best support you.”
Matilda agrees. “Talking to people helps. Communication is something I value a lot, and this has solidified that value for me. Kindness helps too. Not just capital-K act of Kindness stuff, but little kindnesses. Not being mad you slept in. Getting off Twitter after ten minutes instead of two hours. Remembering to text your friends. Kindness and communication seem to me to be the only way through this.”
Sharona Lin is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @sforsharona.
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