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Coronavirus anxiety: how to keep your worries about the pandemic – and the future – under control

Are you struggling to handle your anxiety about the future of the coronavirus pandemic? Here’s how to stop your worries from spiralling out of control.

As we watch countries all over the world begin to lift their lockdown restrictions, it’s only natural to worry about what might be coming next.

As we wait for Boris Johnson to make an announcement about the UK’s path out of lockdown on Sunday, it’s all-too-easy to find yourself catastrophising about what the next stage of this pandemic might hold – from second waves to even more time spent in lockdown.

Thanks to the influx of news alerts, social media notifications and daily updates on the spread of the virus, people across the world are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety; in the UK, almost half of adults have suffered with “high levels” of anxiety, according to the Office of National Statistics. 

It’s only normal to worry about everything that’s going on at the moment, especially as we’ve never faced a situation quite like this before. However, if you find yourself spending a lot of time worrying about the coronavirus outbreak and struggling to get your anxiety levels under control, that’s when it becomes an issue. Catastrophising about what’s coming next – and spending your days worrying about all the possible outcomes of the pandemic – will only exacerbate your anxiety and make you feel worse, so it’s important to manage those feelings and get them under control as much as possible.

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“Catastrophising happens when we overestimate the likelihood that our current situation will end in catastrophe, and underestimate our ability to cope,” explains Dr Martina Paglia, clinical and counselling psychologist and clinical director of The International Psychology Clinic. “People who catastrophise are likely to spend time thinking about the worst case scenario – and are convinced that this is what is actually going to happen.”

Recognising that we’re catastrophising is the first step towards dealing with it. Catastrophic thinking is, in CBT terms, a “cognitive distortion” – so it’s important that we recognise when our thinking has shifted from a healthy pattern to an unhealthy one.

A woman pulling at a rope which is about to snap
“Catastrophising happens when we overestimate the likelihood that our current situation will end in catastrophe, and underestimate our ability to cope.”

“The best way to recognise if you’re catastrophising to ask yourself is there any other outcomes that are possible in the situation,” Dr Paglia explains. “Identify what the catastrophe is and what the best case scenario is, and then think about a point in the middle. Statistics tell us that this is most likely to happen.”

Once you’ve identified that you’re catastrophising – and reminded yourself that the worst case scenario is just one of a number of different possible outcomes – it’s time to try and calm your anxiety to ensure it doesn’t spiral out of control. 

As the current situation is different to a “normal” one we might encounter, Dr Paglia recommends taking some time to calm ourselves down and remind ourselves that the situation is out of our control. Surprisingly, she says, telling ourselves that we’re powerless – and accepting that we’re unable to control the situation we find ourselves in – is actually a great way to reduce our anxiety levels.

“The first thing we can do to calm ourselves down is pause and remind ourselves that there is nothing we can do to control things,” she explains. “A lot of people have a controlling tendency – they need to plan things ahead and keep things in a certain order – so it’s very important for them to take the time to accept that they have no control about what’s going on. 

“In this way, acceptance is key in helping people to take a more mindful stance about what they can do, so they can accept that this is the situation, and they can only cope with whatever is going on at the time. The power of acceptance is that it can stop people from worrying, because if you’re able to pause and think that there is nothing in your power and it’s out of your control, you will slowly be able to think about and approach the situation in a different light.”

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Approaching a situation mindfully is a great way to reduce anxiety levels because it helps you to see the situation for what it actually is – not what your mind is imagining it to be. When we feel anxious, it’s easy to get stuck in our thoughts and live vicariously through the scary situations we imagine in our mind, rather than dealing with the tangible things in front of us. 

Eugene Farrell, mental health lead for AXA PPP Healthcare, also recommends taking the time to sit down and identify those anxious thoughts, and recognising when they’re irrational or “distorted”.

“With the current news environment, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed about things and suddenly end up in a panic,” Farrell says. “If you’re feeling anxious or find yourself spiralling, one of the simplest ways to help you through things is to recognise some of the ways in which your thoughts may be distorted.

“By being aware of certain patterns in thinking you will be able to recognise when your mind is playing havoc, which inevitably makes it easier to cope.”

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According to Farrell, there are three common thought distortions or “patterns” we need to be aware of when we’re feeling anxious:

  • Selective abstraction: “That is, drawing conclusions based on one or few elements of a situation. It can often help to write all the facts down and to talk to a friend or loved one as well, to ensure your view isn’t too negatively skewed.”
  • Drawing conclusions: “We’ve all been there, where we’ve panicked about something and have then suddenly gone into a spiral and jumped to a conclusion about something else as a result. A good way to overcome this is to stick with the facts (‘rational mind’) rather than the emotions (‘emotional mind’), which will help you in drawing the most accurate conclusions (‘wise mind’) – write down all of the facts and separate them from the emotions to help with this.”
  • Magnification and catastrophising: “It’s easy to panic when words such as ‘pandemic’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘death tolls’ are frequently being used. Try to think in small blocks – take everything one small step at a time, rather than in leaps.”

Grounding techniques such as breath work and mindfulness meditations can also help us to stop our anxious thoughts from spiralling out of control, because they help us to bring our attention back to the present moment.

“When we worry our mind fluctuates between the past and the future and we really struggle to be in the present moment,” Dr Paglia explains. “A good way to help us be in the present moment is to use attention training and grounding techniques; one way to do this is to ask people to say what they can see, hear, taste, feel and smell, using their five senses to ground themselves where they are in the here and now.”

Dr Paglia also recommends the use of breathing techniques to help bring down and control our adrenaline levels, which tend to skyrocket when our anxious thoughts begin to spiral.

A woman meditating
“When we worry our mind fluctuates between the past and the future and we really struggle to be in the present moment. A good way to help us be in the present moment is to use attention training and grounding techniques.”

“Catastrophic thinking creates anxiety because our brain is not able to distinguish between real danger and the situations that we create in our mind,” she says. “From a bodily perspective, the response to our catastrophic thoughts is the same as the fear response we have whenever we are in a real situation of danger – like if there is a tiger in the room, for example. The adrenaline levels come up and the body is preparing itself to run very quickly. But of course the danger is one that you have created in your mind so there is nothing you need to run away from. So therefore it is really important to help people to regain control of their hormone levels – in particular adrenaline – and breathing techniques are particularly helpful.”

Alongside these immediate, present moment actions, we can also take a more preventative approach to ensure that our anxiety doesn’t get out of control. According to Dr Paglia, making sure we eat healthy, exercise regularly and get enough sleep helps us to build a stable foundation, from which we can introduce a daily self-care routine to maintain our mental health.

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She adds that, in the case your anxiety becomes unmanageable, it’s a good idea to reach out for support – whether that’s from a friend or family member or from a trained professional who can offer CBT to help you deal with what you’re going through.

“It’s important to reach out to your support network to speak with someone who is not going to judge you or criticise you but is going to reassure you,” she says. “In this situation it’s even more important to keep in touch with others because lots of people are going to be in self-isolation – it’s important we stay connected.”

Coping with anxiety

If you’re dealing with feelings of anxiety and worry during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to understand that this is a completely normal response to the current situation. However, if you’re looking for a way to alleviate some of those feelings, here’s three articles that might help.

For more information on anxiety, including what it is and how to cope, you can check out NHS Every Mind Matters or visit the Mind website.

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