‘I fear that I will die and I will never see my children again,’ said the lady in front of me with tears in her eyes who seemed perfectly healthy, at least physically, as we discussed her anxiety. I heard this twice more that same day from two other people. I’ve heard it every day since.
Many of you will know that I work as a psychotherapist in the field of occupational health and during the current situation I have been recruited to work for a large health care trust and hospital in order to support the mental well-being of the staff population as they deal with the biggest health care crisis any of them have ever seen. And probably ever will see. And a number of them, are very anxious.
So, if genuine physical health care experts are feeling anxiety and stress how can we help?
Let us first of all take a dose of reality, a logic pill, if you will.
Every year in the UK, about 600 000 people pass away and further down this article I explain why this might not actually change. It is not unheard of for over 20 000 people to die of the flu. According to a Times article I was perusing the other day the number is often around 17 000. Yet we absolutely never panic about influenza – not these days. Routinely, each year I will hear folk poo poo the flu vaccine, ignoring all the facts, see men in the public washrooms not washing their hands and coughers and sneezers do their thing without benefit of tissues and hand sanitizer. Any scary articles about the current strain of flu goes by unnoticed, unless there’s an animal in the title and it is business as normal. And tens of thousands of people die. Not an eyelid batted. But why?
Maybe it’s as simple as fear of the unknown and a lack of obvious comparisons (unless you’ve read this article) and a fear of uncertainty. In a recent webinar click here to view, about anxiety and the coronavirus that myself and my colleague Dr Rick Norris appeared in we covered this very thing and many other related issues whilst being grilled by Jonathon Butler of My Fit Mind. We noted that whilst the media has to keep us up to date and aware of the facts, if they are going to show a hospital it will be all face masks and respirators. If they show a supermarket, it will be empty shelves and reports of scuffles, arguments and fights and we will filter in the reports of deaths and not recoveries. It’s culture and the human mind at work, doing what it has always done. And breeding fear.
So, what can we do? Take a deep breath and grab a notebook and pen. Now write down three of your favourite memories from any point in your life. Just a bullet point reminder will do. Now spend a few minutes on each memory and engage every sense in the recollection. Tomorrow, do three more, adding to your list each day – 20 is a good number to aim for. If we diligently complete this exercise we will still have coronavirus in our midst and if we don’t do it, well we will still have coronavirus in our midst but what we do by performing this exercise is we encourage the subconscious parts of our brain to take on a more balanced perspective – this exercise is not about burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the reality of the current situation; I still would appreciate it if you washed your hands and used some sanitizing gel please. The brain is hardwired to recognize threats, we are still cave dwelling people really, we just live in places with fresh running water, so humans find it hard to keep perspective when the world is screaming ‘danger!!!’.
The brutal truth is, none of us can guarantee success in this situation but by practising the right and correct procedures such as hygiene and social distancing, we definitely do give ourselves the best chance of it. Another reality here is that the annual mortality rate might not actually go up – many of the people who will pass away with the virus might well have been in their last few months of life anyway. And lest anyone think I’m being heartless, that is certainly not my intention. I would not like to see one person robbed of one day of life, but the facts are heavily weighted to suggest that most otherwise healthy people will be unwell for a few days and fully recover – if they do indeed contract the virus.
If you are feeling anxious, please recognise that you are not alone. A feeling of anxiety does not mean you are weak or broken in some way, but you can practise the exercise highlighted above to help and use the facts from this article to help you keep perspective.
All the best,