As the number of news reports and articles on the coronavirus outbreak continues to skyrocket (and the supply of toilet rolls in supermarkets dwindles), Stylist investigates the best ways to get our health anxiety under control and keep ourselves calm.
Thanks to the endless stream of push notifications, breaking news alerts and social media updates taking up our headspace on a daily basis, it’s no surprise that many of us find today’s news cycle particularly stressful and bad for our mental health. Whereas previously we could unplug from the news by simply avoiding the morning’s papers, now, headlines detailing devastating events and concerning global developments are plastered everywhere we look.
If there’s one area of the news that has been worst-affected by the development of instantaneous headlines, it’s health stories. Thanks to the use of clickbait, exaggeration and rumour spread via speculative theories and fake news, it’s easier than ever to find yourself absorbed by misinformation and scaremongering stories online.
No situation has made this more clear than the recent coronavirus outbreak. The virus, which was first recorded in China, is believed to have infected more than 110,616 people across the world as of 17 March. More than 1,500 people have tested positive for the virus in the UK so far (17 March), but because the government is not testing every suspected case, the actual number of cases is estimated to be between 35,000 and 50,000, according to the BBC.
Of course, as in any outbreak of illness, it’s important for us to stay informed, but much of the social media discussion and news coverage of the coronavirus has led to amplified levels of fear. As is to be expected, many of us are suffering from high levels of health anxiety right now as we try to process the sheer number of people who are dealing with the virus. A YouGov survey recently found that 60% of British people see coronavirus as a major or moderate threat to the country. The recent events are also particularly triggering for people who already suffer with mental health conditions including health anxiety and OCD.
If you need proof that people across the UK are beginning to panic about the likelihood of a coronavirus pandemic, just take a look at supermarket shelves up and down the country. Many people are now panic buying supplies – including toilet roll, tinned goods and hand soap in an attempt to “prepare” themselves for the virus.
People are scared and, understandably, concerned – but anxiety is never an excuse for racism. According to a worrying new survey from Ipsos, one in seven people in the UK would now avoid people of Chinese origin or appearance, simply because the virus originated there. As freelance journalist Yuan Ren explained in a piece for Stylist, Asian women across the country are being subjected to increasingly high levels of racism as a direct result of the outbreak. As she writes in her piece: “In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, I’ve been asked by people if I’ve just returned from Wuhan. I’ve also been asked to name the last date that I was in China.”
It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious when faced with the barrage of scary headlines that come with an outbreak or pandemic like coronavirus, but coping methods that subject another person to discrimination are never OK. It’s also important to make sure that the methods you’re using to deal with your anxiety aren’t actually exacerbating it – relentlessly pursuing the latest information on the coronavirus may seem like a good way to keep on top of the virus, but the only thing that behaviour will do is make your anxiety worse.
“We know that uncertainty can affect our mental health, so it’s understandable that many people are worried about the current situation,” Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, told Stylist. “If you’re finding it difficult to cope, it could be a good idea to turn off the news for a while, pause your notifications, and/or restrict your social media usage.
“Exercise is a really effective way to boost wellbeing and alleviate anxiety for many people, so try to get physically active if you can, especially if you’re able to get outdoors in nature. If you’re unable to go outside, you could try something like online yoga, pilates, mindfulness or relaxation techniques. If you’re worried about the impact of coronavirus on your mental health, read our information here.”
1. Create healthy news habits
As mentioned above, health anxiety is often fuelled by reading and pursuing new information, whether that’s checking the latest news stories or simply googling symptoms and signs of whatever condition you’re worried about.
“Health anxiety is driven and maintained by constant information checking,” Dr Arroll says. “Limit interruptions in your day by switching off alerts from your news app.”
And while it’s important to stay informed on the day-to-day goings-on in the world, it’s important that we don’t overload ourselves with three or four different sources of the same story.
“Choose just one trusted news source/app and delete the rest off of your phone,” she suggests.
With curated news services such as Apple News, consider blocking the channels you find to be particularly anxiety-inducing. To do this on your iPhone, simply search for the news source you want to block, tap the sharing icon on an article from that news source and scroll through the options to choose “dislike channel” or “mute channel”.
If you’re looking for quick answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about the coronavirus, you can check out our guide here.
And if you want to avoid news stories about the coronavirus altogether, you could always rely wholly on official channels such as the NHS, GOV.UK or the World Health Organisation (WHO) for updates, as the information provided by these channels is trusted and backed by science. You can also follow the Department of Health and Social Care for updates on Twitter.
Finally, Dr Arroll adds, give yourself set periods of the day when you’re allowed to check the news, and make sure you stick to it.
“Limit the frequency of news checking, whatever the source, to set periods in the day,” she says. “If you’re a constant checker, reduce the number of times you read your news gradually and note your levels of anxiety before and after you check coronavirus stories.”
2. Put it into perspective
While at first the statistics on the number of people infected and killed by coronavirus may seem scary, if you’re feeling anxious, it’s important to put them into perspective.
“Challenge any unhelpful beliefs,” Dr Arroll suggests. “News headlines may lead us to believe that this is a catastrophic occurrence, but looking objectively at the evidence can put our minds at ease. Although it is a serious illness, at present the death rates are much below that of seasonal flu.”
For a quick bit of perspective (and so you don’t need to do anymore googling), based on the data of 56,000 patients with the coronavirus, the WHO says that only 6% of people with the virus become critically ill, with 80% developing only mild symptoms (based on data published 24 February). So far, more than 79,000 people are believed to have recovered as of 17 March.
And compared to the number of people affected by the flu, the number of people infected with the coronavirus still seems small – according to the BBC, one billion people catch influenza every year, with between 290,000 and 650,000 deaths caused by the disease.
3. Practise self-care
Global events such as the coronavirus outbreak can be a lot to deal with, so it’s important we give ourselves time to process what’s going on and rationalise our anxious thoughts. A good way to do this is engaging in whatever self-care practice you prefer.
“If you’re feeling very anxious, practise some self-care with whatever works for you – going for a walk, having a long bath, etc – to reset an anxious mind,” Dr Arroll says.
If your anxiety is really bad and you feel like you need a break, you could consider asking your employer if you can take a mental health day from work to give yourself time to reset and recharge. Just because you’re working from home, doesn’t mean you can’t ask for a break.
Main Image: Erin Aniker