Health anxiety during Covid-19

Posted: April 29, 2020
Category: COVID-19, Anxiety

Health anxiety during Covid-19
by Hal M.

For anyone already suffering from health anxieties, a viral epidemic that makes our towns and cities look like scenes from B-Zombie movies, will be a challenge. For many, this is put mildly.
There are indeed a whole raft of reasons why this can be pretty serious:
when we are anxious, our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol, so we can act accordingly in fight-or-flight situations. Once it’s over, our bodies revert to our normal setting and we start to relax again.

However, when someone is continuously stressed or anxious, the body will continue to release cortisol without it ever finding a release. As a result, we’ll have surplus levels of it, which is detrimental to our health: it can weaken our immune systems, bring on obesity, diabetes, muscle weakness and can also lead to memory problems or depression.

But it really doesn’t have to get to this stage. As a therapist I’d approach this in two steps:

  1. acceptance

  2. bringing awareness to your scope of what actually is in your hands to change

    1. acceptance:

I wholeheartedly invite you dear reader, to accept how testing and challenging these times are: people are getting sick, many die, you cannot be sure if you might catch it, if you will you be able to keep your family safe, how long this will go on, will your money last until then and when will they find that pesky vaccine already… so many questions and uncertainties!

Life’s a challenge at best, but now we’re in these unprecedented times of a global viral epidemic.

So yes, do accept that currently, we’re collectively in a limbo state for an uncertain amount of time. You’ll also have to accept, that there is no way around this other than going through it day by day.
Indeed, oddly, we even might get used to this. Some bright spark once said: “normality is cultural”.
Then inevitably comes the question: ‘So now what? Where do I go from here?’
Now, one key subject that’s repeatedly explored in my therapy work is that of boundaries. The serenity prayer usually attributed to Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is spot-on:

” Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

This is important: another symptom of anxieties is that they remove us from our present reality. As a consequence, we lose perspective and are hence much more prone to feel overwhelmed.
When we though focus on the current situation as it is, we can start to draw a boundary from the things we cannot change and focus on those we can. Which brings us to point

Health anxiety during Covid-19

2: bringing awareness to your scope of what actually  is in your hands to change

Now, I treat all of my clients as the free, adults that they are. I tell them, as I now tell you dear reader, that you are free to make the choices you deem good and right for you.
You are absolutely free to make the choice to worry, to give in to your anxieties and go along with your scary thoughts e.g. you’ve caught the virus, have infected others and that your days are numbered.
You can decide to go along with this, this isn’t even the question. The question instead is: why would you?

What would it actually change? How would this improve your (health) anxieties? How would this improve your life? Your future?
Ask yourself if you ever had thoughts in the line of: “I’m anxious about my health, that’s it, nothing will change, I might as well not bother…”
You’re welcome to prove me wrong, but for the life of me I cannot see any co-relation here. Fact is: just because things are currently uncertain, does not mean the writing’s on the wall.
Just because things have always felt sickly and anxious to you, does not mean this will continue to so for the rest of your life.

Remember the old adage: your past is not your destiny.

For now, you don’t know. So, stop assuming the worst already and see to focus on the what is as opposed to the what if
As an example, and to also highlight the sheer perniciousness of health anxiety, I invite you dear reader to a brief cognitive exercise:

Imagine you wake up one day in a plain room. There’s no door, only one tiny window with metal bars. Just that little cell of four plain white walls you woke up in.
You also don’t know how you got there, but there is a way out.
So, how do you get out of that room?
Easy: stop imagining yourself in it.
Yes, I know I started the exercise by asking you to imagine it.
So what? You’ll have a whole raft of people telling you to imagine all kinds of things. Will you follow suit every time what they, or indeed you yourself tell you to?

“I’m sick, I’m fat, I’m stupid, I can’t do this, I’ll be single till I die? I’ll never have friends, I’ll never make it?”

They say jump you say how high? I sincerely hope not…

That’s the way out: you don’t have to believe every thought that crosses your mind. It doesn’t matter where that thought comes from, be it from strangers, supposed friends, members of your family, or indeed from you yourself. You don’t have to go along with it. That’s precisely the point of meditation.
I annoyed in my therapy sessions many clients when I told them that they themselves are the main creators of their anxieties.
You decide which headspace works best for you: you either chose the one that traps you (just like a moment ago), that makes you feel sick, anxious or low; or you chose one that gives you peace, a break from everything and indeed an endless space where you find a safe refuge and let’s you leave whenever you want to.

So, the next time you think you’re sick, see if you can cut your GP some slack. Maybe your enlarged stomach isn’t due to an ever-growing cancerous tumour but just might be due to years of beer, curry, chips and pies.
Maybe your lower back pain doesn’t mean it’ll give out any minute now and you’ll be paralysed soon but might just mean you’re in your mid-forties.

It’s fine to be in your mid-forties and to have a bit of a gut. Yes, even if many people out there told you otherwise. If your GP told you you’re all-in-all healthy, especially once you start cutting down on all the pies and up your veg, then you’re good enough.

Health anxiety during Covid-19

Indeed, the major challenge for you is going to be to learn to live with the uncertainty of it all. Which is perfectly natural: we all want to know where we’re at in our lives. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said it perfectly:

 ”The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”

Yes, you don’t know where you’re at right now. This will soon change. But for now, stop assuming the worst. Nothing has happened yet. Indeed, what you fear, might never happen. You worrying about it won’t change much, other than increasing your stress levels.

And yes, taking on this new attitude will take time, practise and more time. And you’ll get it wrong. That’s all fine, don’t kick yourself. Small steps. One at a time. All you lack is practise. Just keep going.

So, see to get friendly with the idea of not knowing. Learn to trust the universe, conserve your emotional energies and practise being emotionally present in the here-and-now.

It is the only moment where you can implement and actualise change, so:

  • plan your days, make lists either for work or for whatever needs sorting/fixing around the house
  • maintain your social circles: could you catch up with old friends, members of the family?
  • we’re allowed out hour for some proper exercise, so go for a sprint around the park, or when it’s rainy:
  • see to invest in a snazzy treadmill, which would also keep your kids active, it’d also be a perfect way to recreate the “fight” response by letting out aggression:
    • you’ll have lower cortisol levels,
    • higher levels of adrenaline and oxytocin (which in turn will elevate your mood too) and
    • you’re likely to sleep better. Get it!
  • meditate: set a time every day where the house is silent, or where everyone shuts up for an agreed time. See to focus simply on your breathing. Practise to keep your attention there – you’ll find this a blessing in anxiety situations, were you’ll eventually be able to snap into mindful-mode. It’s also another excellent way to release cortisol.
  • especially after your GP has already confirmed you’re healthy, do not go online for any further medical health checks! Instead:
  • eat healthy: remember, you’ll be under lock-down for several more weeks. Hence, go easy on carbs and sugars, also to maintain stable moods and energy levels; up your intake in veg, fish, protein – but treat yourselves on the weekends to avoid binging the rest of the week
  • focus on the things that are in place, like in doing a gratitude list, e.g.:
    • you having a roof over your head,
    • you having enough food,
    • you living in the 6th wealthiest country with – still –
    • one of the best healthcare systems
  • seek to help others: you’d be surprised the huge difference in other’s lives you can make by just a few attentively listened moments, just a few empathic words or few shared life experiences. Once you’re aware of your ability and you own value of having made such a positive change to someone’s life, you won’t feel anxious anymore, trust me. Help others. It’s not always about me, me, me.

In closing: see to leave that anxious headspace by being present in the present. You decide how much you elevate your fears into anxious chapters of your life. For all accounts, this could suddenly blow over, making us wonder if all the drama was worth it just because some bloke in a Chinese village didn’t cook his bat properly…

There’s always a different way of viewing things, remember: don’t be constantly up in your anxious head, so you don’t lose perspective – or even worse, your sense of humour!

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