How to protect your mental health in a pandemic

Quarantine memes are admittedly pretty funny, but you shouldn’t feel bad if the coronavirus epidemic is triggering or upsetting you. We spoke to experts to find out how to handle it all.

by Roisin Lanigan
10 March 2020, 11:24am

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Since the coronavirus outbreak first began hitting the headlines in January, there have been two distinct camps of response. There are those who think that the whole thing is overblown, that the media are fearmongering with constant negative headlines and that we’ll all ultimately be okay, so who needs to worry about washing your hands a little bit more! At the other extreme, there are those who are stockpiling masks, hand sanitisers and 15,000 toilet rolls (despite the fact this has repeatedly been denounced as selfish and counterproductive) and speculating on Facebook about how fast the end of the world will come.

For those who sit somewhere in the middle of those two extremes -- which is obviously most of us -- the past few months have undoubtedly been uncomfortable and worrying. Since the initial outbreak in China’s Wuhan province, the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has infected over 110,000 people worldwide, with more than 4,000 deaths. It has dominated the news cycle almost every single day. And while governments across the world have launched health information campaigns, encouraging us to sing “happy birthday” twice while washing our hands and avoiding touching our faces and eyes, less has been said about how to protect ourselves and each other from the negative mental health impacts of the coronavirus outbreak.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, worried or panicked, then close those 24 tabloid tabs you have opened about how we’re all doomed and read the advice from these experts instead.

When we’re nervous, anxious or worried, our body releases adrenaline, which can cause inflammation and induce a stress response in our body. While in the right circumstances this is an important evolutionary tool to keep us alive, prolonged stress can actually impair our immune system by putting it under too much pressure. By this logic, remaining calm and looking after our mental health isn’t less important than being healthy, it’s necessary to remaining healthy in the first place.

“There’s an evolutionary advantage to how our thinking works, and the negativity bias we work at means we’re more aware of danger, making us more likely to stay alive,” says cognitive hypnotherapist Jessica Boston. “But it also means we’re more likely to remain in a constant state of panic, especially as the continuous bombardment of information in our modern lives creates the illusion that there is always a threat looming.”

This state of hyperalertness means that those suffering from anxiety frequently create a “worst case scenario” over things like the coronavirus outbreak. But there are steps to reducing these scenarios, which can manifest as a difficulty breathing, chest pains, sweating and inability to focus. “Anxiety thrives off uncertainty,” says Jessica. “One remedy in reducing your anxiety is first of all to remind yourself, to breathe, take a look around you, ground yourself and don’t live in your imagination, and second of all, give your unconscious mind as much certainty where possible.

“Your best prevention against virus is avoiding stress, because the more you stress, the more susceptible you can become to viruses, as stress can dampen your immune response. The thing is, it’s hard not to be stressed when we are constantly bombarded with fearful information. There is no point in succumbing to a fear pandemic before a disease pandemic has even taken hold.”

Take a break from the news cycle
Obviously we rely on the news to let us know whether things have changed where we live, if quarantines have been put in place and if changes to the law in response to coronavirus will affect our day to day lives. What we don’t need to do, though, is sit refreshing Twitter all day, seeking out more bad news to scare ourselves with.

“It’s about being responsible,” says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. “Remind yourself that life doesn’t need to stop -- and keep engaging in activities and plans as you normally would. If you’re prone to anxiety, limit time spent on social media and the news. Both can amplify anxiety, and be especially triggering if you’re someone who already struggles with anxiety day-to-day. It’s a form of self-care to acknowledge that something is causing you harm and to take action against it. In any crisis, there will inevitably be businesses and industries that stand to benefit from a difficult situation. There is certainly the sense that the media find this an engaging subject…”

You can protect the people you love by protecting yourself first
Much of the recent coverage of coronavirus has focused on the assumption that young, healthy people remain relatively unaffected by the worst symptoms of COVID-19. But while that is comforting for some, for others with underlying health issues, or those who are caring for elderly or sick loved ones, this assumption, while undoubtedly meant to be comforting, can feel dismissive and upsetting. But it’s important to remember the distinction between things which are out of your control, and the productive ways you can actually help -- by remaining calm, positive and sensible.

“Take a moment when you’re feeling overwhelmed and breathe,” advises Nick Davies, a psychotherapist specialising in trauma and PTSD. “Remember, the risks are very low. Chris Whitty [chief medical officer] believes the mortality rate will prove to be 1% or lower and while yes, death rates are higher in the elderly, even in people over 80, 90% will survive.”

Don’t (panic) buy into the sensationalism
In a pandemic, we are reliant on one another to protect ourselves. The psychology behind buying all the hand sanitiser, soap, masks and gloves available to you is a flawed one -- to remain healthy as a society we need to make sure there is enough of these supplies to go around. Put simply -- if you’re washing your hands, but other people aren’t, then you’re still at risk. Putting your fate in other people’s hands in this way can be daunting, but it’s necessary to remain calm and not bunker down into a “me me me” mentality.

“A good way of coping is to ‘avoid the poison of the crowd’,” says Craig Jackson, a Psychology lecturer at Birmingham City University. “Don't go along with the fear-mongering and panics but be independent. I'm not going to recommend things like mindfulness here or other psychological thinking skills as they are not needed. Just rational thinking and common sense should do it.

“The panic buying and increased price-hikes on products such as face masks and sanitising gel remind us that it is just another human function that can be manipulated for the profit of others. Taking control of one's own immediate hygiene behaviours and making small but effective changes will do much more for "survival" than masks and gels. Washing hands more frequently and more thoroughly are still the best changes to implement.”

Stay safe out there.