As Australia steps up to protect those who are most physically vulnerable in the face of coronavirus, there are those who are at risk for another reason: their mental health.
Beyond Blue said 14.4 per cent of Australians aged 16 to 85 had experienced an anxiety disorder in the past 12 months. For many, our new reality – supermarket shortages, lockdowns, cancelled events and quiet streets – is not merely being processed as information, but a genuine threat.
“I have always been an anxious person,” says Lana Hirschowitz, a writer and mother of one in Sydney. “The fact is I wear fear and anxiety draped over my shoulders like a cape. When news of the COVID-19 virus outbreak started to filter through my social media feeds, it tightened that cape around my neck.
“Where I was once alone in my fear it felt like now the whole world was joining in. And there was no comfort in that. Each piece of news pulls it tighter.”
Psychologist Dr Suzy Green, chief executive of The Positivity Institute, says while it’s hard to miss news about coronavirus, you can still limit your screen time.
“Heightened exposure to negative news is shown to have detrimental impacts on our mood and our inherent negativity bias” she says.
“I recommend limiting the constant stream of exposure to one reliable source one to two times a day. Remember there are so many other activities that you could be doing that will have a positive impact on your mood.”
When you find yourself in a spiral of news-searching and negativity, stop what you’re doing, she says. Instead, try “stress-based mindfulness meditation”, which involves taking some deep breaths and holding each for four seconds.
But news media is one thing. For Hirschowitz, the tipping point was grocery shopping last week.
“I went to the local supermarket not thinking about COVID-19, just the dinner I was going to make that night. But when I approached the empty shelves I could feel the fear rise in me like bile. This was my fear made real, like some post-apocalyptic war scene,” she says.
“It was a real and visceral reminder that everyone around me was as scared as I am.”
Green says managing triggers through critical thinking can help turn around that sense of overwhelm.
“It is really important at this time that we manage our fears, as the associated stress can impair our immune functioning and wellbeing and make us more susceptible to illness,” she says.
Tips for managing anxiety during coronavirus
- Limit your exposure to news. Aim to use only one reliable source, up to twice a day
- Keep your days structured even if working from home or in self-isolation
- Maintain a healthy exercise and sleep routine
- Maintain a balanced diet and limit alcohol, especially before bed
- Practice acts of kindness towards others
- Avoid crowds but don’t isolate yourself completely. Have contact with loved ones, even if online
- Seek professional support if needed
And while social distancing can hinder social connectedness, Harman says we can counter that using technology.
“We can have a 15-minute coffee catch-up with a friend by Skype. Let’s get creative,” she says.
And rather than operating from a mindset of scarcity by stockpiling toilet paper, Harman recommends incorporating acts of kindness towards others.
“We will see the best of humanity if we come together on this, but we need to be doing as much as we can to control the things that we can control.”
Tracey, 47, who struggles with OCD and chose to withhold her surname, says the coronavirus is stretching her psychologically.
“There is just so much that we don’t know – that’s what’s scary. So, I’m washing my hands whenever I get home – even if I’ve just been to check the mail. I’m washing my face so often it’s drying out. I’m slathering hand sanitiser all over the kids. My mind wants me to keep going, keep washing, keep checking for germs, but I know that’s the OCD.”
“I’ve kept both kids at home. It’s as much for my sake as theirs, I know. But it’s either that or go crazy.”
Green says anyone struggling with mental health shouldn’t be afraid to seek professional support – especially when practising social distancing.
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
For help finding a psychologist go to the Australian Psychological Council www.psychology.org.au