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Living With an Anxiety Disorder Amidst the Pandemic

Understand how the health crisis is affecting those with pre-existing anxiety disorders.

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The outbreak of the global health crisis has proved to be a debilitating experience for us all – especially for those with pre-existing anxiety. Many of us might experience some level of anxiety during this crisis – and this is certainly usual and expected. You may worry about your own health, the health of your loved ones, and the scarcity of basic supplies such as food or medicines. You might even feel burdened with the stress of working from home, taking care of kids, and managing household chores. 

For someone with an anxiety disorder, however, the constant stream of worrisome thoughts in the context of the pandemic can make it difficult to even carry out daily responsibilities. It’s safe to say that if you were already subjected to anxiety, the novel virus has done nothing to ease your worries. 

For those dealing with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Anyone suffering from OCD may struggle the most at this time. Compulsive behaviours typically seen in OCD are on the rise – namely hand washing and/or cleaning. This is understandable, given the emphasis in the media about maintaining hygiene.

If you otherwise struggle with thoughts of contamination and compulsive urges regarding cleaning or checking, you might start to experience new concerns around: 

  • Fear of catching the virus – which can lead to an unhealthy amount of cleaning/washing
  • Irrational thoughts about passing the virus on to a loved one or the vulnerable population
  • Personalising the situation to yourself, through thoughts like, “Am I not taking enough precaution?” or “What if I do something to harm those around me?”

All of these concerns can take a toll on your well-being and even disrupt your ability to carry out your daily responsibilities.

What you can do about it

The good news is that there are a number of things that can help you gain a sense of control. Firstly, it is important to remember that this is an extremely difficult time for you – so be kind and patient with yourself. 

If frequent hand-washing is your area of concern, try keeping a stopwatch next to you or a reminder that goes off after 20 seconds – telling you that it’s time to stop. 

Similarly, if you’re struggling to restrict yourself from checking the news, schedule it into your day and allow yourself to only watch the news once each day – preferably not before bedtime. You can even get your loved ones to keep an eye on any unusual behaviours you engage in.

For those dealing with Panic Disorder

Panic attacks are periods of intense fear or anxiety that often strike with little or no warning. Your heart rate spikes up, and you may experience dizziness, tightness in your chest and even shortness of breath. 

With the outbreak of the health crisis, symptoms of panic are now being misinterpreted. Typically, a person with panic will be able to link these symptoms to their mental health disorder. However, shortness of breath is also a symptom of the virus. Thus, someone with panic might find it increasingly difficult to make the distinction, and when they experience symptoms like breathlessness, they might think that they have contracted the virus. This, in turn, can make them feel even more anxious – increasing the frequency of panic attacks.

What you can do about it

Be informed about the symptoms of panic that are also seen in the virus. Educating yourself about the same will enable you to identify a panic episode when it is coming on. As a result, you will be able to take action to feel better and get your panic to subside.

When you start to panic, you can engage in grounding techniques to recenter yourself. Using your senses to observe your surroundings – what you can see, hear, smell and even taste in your mouth – can calm you down. 

You could also try breathing deeply in order to trigger a physiological reaction of relaxation in your body. This can help you feel calmer too. If you find yourself focussing too much on your symptoms while the panic is building, engage in some activity to distract yourself.

If you find that self-help tools are not helping, it might even help you to speak with a mental health professional online to get a better understanding of what is triggering panic and how you can better cope with it. 

For those dealing with Agoraphobia 

Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder in which you may avoid situations or places that can trigger a panic attack or that cause you to feel trapped. In therapy, individuals with agoraphobia are often advised to gradually ease themselves into getting comfortable with public places or places with large gatherings. 

However, due to the imposed restrictions, many individuals are now unable to step outside frequently and work on overcoming their fears. Because of this, the progress they have made so far may get interrupted and unhelpful beliefs about ‘unsafe’ outside spaces may get reinforced. Since they cannot actively work on addressing their fears, the fears may become more severe. They may even begin to feel anxious about stepping outside of their homes for daily essentials or other work. 

On the flip side, the health crisis has been particularly hard for those who feel ‘stuck’ at home. Such individuals may typically find comfort in being around friends or in public places but now are unable to interact with people in person. Staying at home for a long period of time can be very distressing. Constant exposure to news and volumes of misinformation may lead to the onset of a panic attack for many of these individuals.

What you can do about it

A technique that may help alleviate feelings of anxiety is desensitisation. It involves overcoming triggers of anxiety by imagining yourself doing what you fear. For instance, if you’re anxious about stepping outside to buy your essentials, simply imagining yourself successfully stepping out can be very helpful in easing your worries. You can even use your senses to imagine as many details as possible. Doing this over time will help you feel more confident in actually approaching the situation in real life.

When your anxiety gets unmanageable, relaxation techniques can calm you down. A simple mindfulness exercise can be beneficial, and you can incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine. For instance, while drinking your morning beverage, keep your electronics away and sit in silence for a few minutes. Savour the taste of your drink and observe how it makes you feel. It might even help to sit next to a window or in your balcony while engaging in this exercise.

For those dealing with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalised Anxiety Disorder or GAD is characterised by an intense worry about a number of different things. In clinical psychology, GAD is often referred to as ‘free-floating’ anxiety – which is anxiety that cannot be pinned to any specific concern. 

If you have GAD, you may be able to carry out your daily tasks but anxiety about something or the other might keep coming in and out of your mind with no apparent cause. For some, the anxiety can become so intense that they may feel helpless and find it very difficult to perform their daily activities. Moreover, while working from home, accommodating household chores and other responsibilities can make the process distressing and overwhelming. 

What you can do about it

Ask yourself, “What can I control?” In times of crisis, it’s easy to get swept away by things that are outside of your control. We’re all living in a state of uncertainty – not knowing what the future holds for us. In such times, it’s important to remind yourself of what’s within your control – be it getting through the tasks on your to-do list or ensuring that your kids are on top of their school work. 

Make a list of things you can control, and pick any 1 item and do it. Focussing on action over thought can help you feel better, as it can get your mind off of the worry and also help you channelise your energy.

In times of anxiety, you can even try working on your thoughts. Ask yourself what you would say to a friend who might be going through a similar situation, and say it to yourself. You can even tell yourself to zoom out of the situation and look at it from a different/third-person perspective. 

While living with an anxiety disorder can be challenging in the time of a pandemic, it’s important to remember that help is within your reach. When you’re struggling to make sense of things around you, pause and take a deep breath. Life is rapidly changing and we’re all faced with the task of quickly adapting to these difficult times. In the midst of this chaos, it’s important to do things at your own pace and engage in techniques that serve to calm your anxiety. And finally, as much as it may feel like it, remember that you’re not alone in this journey.

References

Articles. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/g/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad.html

COVID-19: Balancing Public Health and Mental Health. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.anxietycanada.com/articles/covid19-balancing-public-health-and-mental-health/

Canadian Mental Health Association. (n.d.). COVID-19 and Anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/infosheet/covid-19-and-anxiety

Hendin, H. (2020, March 25). Using Anxiety Amid COVID-19 as a Tool for Personal Growth. Retrieved from https://www.psychcongress.com/article/using-anxiety-amid-covid-19-tool-personal-growth

Is It a Panic Attack or the Coronavirus? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://lifehacker.com/is-it-a-panic-attack-or-covid-19-1842508376

Murray, J. (n.d.). You are here: Home. Retrieved from https://www.ocduk.org/ocd-coronavirus-summary/

Panic Disorder: Panic Disorder Symptoms: Houston Methodist. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.houstonmethodist.org/psychiatry/anxiety/panic-disorder/

Mulholland, S. (n.d.). Recovering agoraphobe in Dundee fears coronavirus lockdown will aggravate her condition. Retrieved from https://www.eveningtelegraph.co.uk/fp/recovering-agoraphobe-in-dundee-fears-coronavirus-lockdown-will-aggravate-her-condition/

Wilson, R. (2020, March 27). Living With OCD During COVID-19. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-about-anxiety/202003/living-ocd-during-covid-19

(n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/agoraphobia/

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