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Managing anxiety engendered by the COVID-19 outbreak

Dr Angie Wigford, Educational Psychologist for Dover Court International School, Singapore shares some ideas on managing anxiety engendered by the COVID-19 outbreak.

At this difficult and challenging time, many people are becoming anxious about the impact that it is having on their lives and about what might happen in the future. This anxiety is a common reaction and is quite rational. It is important, however, to recognise that this anxiety can become overwhelming for some.

This is an ideal opportunity for us to help ourselves, as well as the young people we support, to develop emotional resilience. Ideally, we will all come out of this episode a little bit stronger, wiser and better able to cope with what life throws at us.

Here are some ideas about how to cope with the anxiety and fear surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

Be realistic about risk

Our brains are used to taking something that is made to sound scary and unknown and inflating the risk of it actually happening to us. It’s a part of our brain’s intrinsic, built-in fight-or-flight response. Things that seem huge and out of control claim our attention over the more ordinary. For example, the coronavirus is getting a lot of attention whereas common flu viruses which cause many more illnesses each year are not: because we are used to them. However, minimising or dismissing the risk altogether (denial) is also not helpful. Some degree of anxiety is useful as it raises awareness and keeps us alert – we just need to keep it in check.

Reach out, have fun and play!

Positive social interaction is very powerful for calming anxiety and distracting us from the concerns of our situation. Making an extra effort in this respect can pay dividends both in the short and the long term. Reach out to people who you think may need a friend or just a bit of company at this time. Reach out to someone you would like to know better. Take this opportunity to contribute to and develop your social support network.

Support our students and your children

For students and children, this is likely to be the first time they are experiencing news of the worldwide outbreak of a disease. Adults may be remembering H1N1 and SARS and therefore have some concept of impact and they know they survived it. Our students are not likely to have had similar experiences and it may seem to them that there are no bounds to the coronavirus spread and it may never end. They need reassurance that this is a phase and that it will end eventually.

If a student expresses concerns, please do not tell them not to worry. If they are already worried this does not help, it dismisses their concerns which may make them more anxious. It is important to listen to their worries, empathise with their feelings and reassure them that they are safe and that what is going on is in their best interests.

Avoid overconsumption of media

Don’t look at your media feeds every 10 minutes! Take control over your consumption of media and stories related to the outbreak. Scientists and public health officials are working overtime to better understand the virus and are looking at ways to limit its impact. Trust in their work and efforts. If you need updates, check out a government resource for the best, most accurate information.

Use your existing coping skills

No matter what the focus of one’s anxiety, using what’s worked in the past to help manage those feelings is often very helpful. This could be engaging in self-talk, to undo the irrational thoughts coming into your head with rational, fact-based responses. It could involve reaching out to a trusted friend, colleague or family member to talk through your anxiety. Or maybe it’s engaging in some mindfulness or meditation techniques; ones that you’ve learned and that have worked for you in the past. Gardening, going for a walk or run, listening to or playing music, drawing, colouring-in or painting can all help to calm and reassure that you are safe and being looked after. Whatever works to help relieve your stress and reduce your anxiety, try to do more of that in times like this. When you feel like the stress of this virus outbreak is getting to you remember, outbreaks like this do occur from time to time throughout the world. It’s normal. While they can be very scary, the actual chances of your becoming infected are very small if you take common-sense precautions. These include:

  • Washing your hands frequently (with soap and water for 20 seconds) or use a sanitizing hand wash
  • If you choose to wear a mask, make sure it covers your mouth and nose. Discard you mask responsibly after each use and remember to wash your hands immediately after removing it
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes
  • Cough or sneeze into a flexed elbow or tissue. Throw the tissue away into a closed rubbish bin and wash your hands immediately
  • Avoid, as much as possible, crowded places or travel to places where case numbers are growing
  • Avoid close contact with sick people with people who have a cough or fever, or people returning from China within the last 14 days

Follow government health advice 

Comply with the existing government guidelines in all areas. This is a great opportunity to reinforce the importance of hygiene.

Paying attention to maintaining your immune system is something pro-active you can do too. A healthy immune system is supported by a balanced diet and getting the amount of sleep you need to feel well-rested every night (8 hours for adults). Engaging in regular exercise is also important as it helps with mood, sleep and appetite.

Written with reference to the article by Dr Angie Wigford, Educational Psychologist for Dover Court International School, Singapore / IEPS Ltd. 9th February 2020 (with reference to John M Grohol’s article on Coronavirus Anxiety: 4 ways to Cope with Fear on at Psych Central ).