Whether you are bored of hearing about it, anxiously checking for symptoms, worrying about relatives or obsessively following news accounts about it, the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic is affecting us all.
In fact, the World Health Organisation has highlighted how the outbreak has been causing stress and anxiety on a global scale, and has issued advice on how to cope. Their simple suggestion that people should try to avoid news about the disease that they find distressing and seek out stories of recovery from the disease is a good starting point in helping people to manage their fears.
However, this is not easily done. Even if we do not watch the TV news, switch off our radios and do not read the paper, in our age of electronic connectivity, we can easily find ourselves assaulted by intrusive media stories or messages from friends about the disease.
And this advice, focusing as it does on limiting our exposure to new information, doesn’t really tell us anything about how we can deal with existing fears. These are fears that touch us all and centre on concerns about our own health, worries about elderly relatives, friends who are struggling with underlying health conditions or our children.
In addition, for those who already struggle with mental health problems, have existing health anxiety, generalised anxiety or health-related obsessive compulsive disorder, the emergence of this new disease and the precautions we are being told to put into place to protect ourselves can cause distress to skyrocket.
It is important to recognise that when we feel anxious our natural self-protection is triggered leading us to adapt our day to day behaviour. Some of this coping behaviour is helpful. For example, we may be more likely to follow the health advice to wash our hands regularly, touch elbows rather than kiss, hug or shake hands, and minimise contact with large groups or infected individuals.
However, when we are anxious we are more likely to become rigid in the way we apply advice, to over-wash our hands, avoid work or social events unnecessarily, to obsessively check the news or avoid the news completely.
These ways of coping may seem reasonable but can reinforce our fears, limit our access to important information, reduce opportunities for normal interaction, isolate us and undermine our resilience.
So, how can we manage our anxiety and worry about coronavirus?
Follow public health advice for individuals: Keep yourself healthy by following WHO advice. It is estimated that healthy people are likely to recover in 2-3 weeks if they do become sick, so making a list of what you would need in terms of supplies to cover this will help to increase your feelings of control and reduce your anxiety about it. But remember it is important not to over-react or over-do it.
Become more self-aware: For example, notice when your fears are triggered. Which situations are particularly difficult for you. How do you feel when the anxiety is triggered. What are the early warning signs that something is bothering you? The more self-aware you can be the more choice you have about how you respond and the greater the chance you will be able to calm yourself down
Calm your body: Taking action to calm the physical sensations of anxiety will help you to feel much better and will allow you space to step back from your worries. You can do this by practising controlled breathing. This is a way of breathing slowly and rhythmically that helps calm the nervous system and steadies the heart rate, reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety. Breathe in over a slow count of 4, breathe out over a count of 7, pause and repeat. Continuing for just a few minutes will have an impact on feelings of anxiety.
Calm your mind: You might also try mindfulness meditation to calm your mind. Meditation practices help connect us with the present moment and encourage us to allow anxious or worrying thoughts to come and go without engaging with them, dwelling on them or allowing them to escalate or take over. See if you can imagine the thoughts are clouds in the sky, appearing on the horizon and then being blown over as you let them pass by. Observing thoughts as cognitive phenomena in this way helps us to unhook from worries and fears and to see these thoughts in the same way we might see the many other less emotionally-laden thoughts that we have each day.
Take care: If you are worried about your own health, take time to look after yourself. Ensure you are eating well and exercising. It is important to maintain your health and immune system, so try to proactively take care of yourself: physically through healthy eating and exercise, mentally through meditation or yoga, and emotionally through maintaining contact with friends and family and where possible continuing to do the things that you love doing.
Take action: If you are worried about other people, offer them help or support. If you are obsessively checking the news you might need to limit access by taking news feeds and apps off your phone temporarily. And perhaps reduce the number of times you look at the news to once or twice a day.
What can employers do to support staff whose anxiety about coronavirus is impacting their work?
Follow public health advice for workplaces: Employers who provide information to staff about what they are doing to reduce the risk of infection will help to allay some of the anxiety people are likely to have about coming into work. For example, putting up posters, sending out regular updates about current advice, or providing information from occupational health or local public health services.
Where staff feel their organisation is encouraging and supporting working practices that reduce the risk of contracting the illness anxiety is less likely to take hold. These measures might include making hand sanitiser available; providing disinfectant so staff can keep their workplace surfaces clean and germ free; trialling remote working, and reducing business travel where it is possible to find alternatives.
Listen to staff concerns: In our recent blog on how employers can build well-being at work we talk about the importance of listening and showing concern for staff. Managers need to be ready to hear employee concerns about the illness, put in place contingency plans to manage workloads if several people are off sick or if more extensive government restrictions come into place.
If you or someone you manage is struggling to cope or if you would like further information you can access this through the charity No Panic. Further advice and information, as well as a free helpline are also available through Anxiety UK on 03444 755 774.