DUBAI: Is the novel coronavirus scaring the living daylights out of you? Do you constantly wonder what’s going on and where it is all leading? Do you fear the words quarantine, isolation and lockdown? Have you rushed to the supermarket in anticipation to stock up on your groceries?
Well, if the answer is yes to any of these questions, you are not alone.
As news about COVID-19 takes over not just prime time on television but also every sphere of public and private life, the impact it is having on our minds is also becoming a subject of deep concern.
As Dr Craig Sawchuk, licensed psychologist and chair, division of Integrated Behaviourial Health, Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo Clinic, said, “The uncertainty over a global pandemic is a significant stressor right now. Not knowing how this will turn out or what we can do to protect ourselves, seeing others around us acting more anxiously, and being overly exposed to information from the media are exacerbating our levels of anxiety and worry.”
According to Alfred Gull, clinical psychologist at the German Neuroscience Centre in Dubai, an increasing number of patients, including teenagers, are coming to him with signs of anxiety.
Sense of deprivation
“How long will this continue, what happens to my plans? This is what most patients ask as they grapple with the COVID-19 outbreak. Teenagers especially are feeling a sense of deprivation. On the one hand, they are being kept away from physically mingling with friends and classmates; on the other there are stringent rules at home, limiting their time spent on the Internet.”
Gull, who recommends that the Internet time rules be relaxed under these trying circumstances, said, “Children should be encouraged to stay in touch with their friends online as they need to talk and share their feelings. Parents are working from home these days and they can monitor their children’s online activities and prevent any misuse.”
He said for youngsters, and many adults too, the sense of uncertainty and insecurity around them is directly connected with their own identity, as a result of which the changed circumstances of their lives seem “catastrophic”. And without their even realising it, they begin to feel anxious.
The signs of anxiety range from over-thinking and worrying to physical symptoms like a high high rate, numbness in the limbs, palpitations and shortness of breath. Often, people with anxiety can’t sense it and see a number of doctors before being referred to a psychologist.
The psychologist then evaluates the patient after a detailed session and employs various techniques to calm them down. “The aim is not erase this anxiety but deal with the situation at hand by focusing on the minutest details and enjoying the small things in life under our changed circumstances. There is a series of things you can do to overcome the challenge (see list below).”
Guard against panic attacks
Untreated anxiety can result in panic attacks, doctors warn.
Dr Sawchuk says, “A panic attack is a sudden surge of intense symptoms of anxiety that often peak within minutes before gradually declining. Panic attacks often start off by coming out of the blue, but over time, they may start to be triggered by specific situations, such as being in crowds or while driving. Panic attacks are typically characterised by a variety of physical, emotional, cognitive (thinking) and behavioural symptoms.
The physical symptoms include a racing or pounding heart, chest tightness or pressure, shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, sweating, nausea, hot/cold flushes and numbness in the arms and legs. Emotional symptoms include: fear, dread, anxiety or terror. And the cognitive symptoms include: fear of losing control, fainting, going crazy, or even more extreme fears such as having a heart attack, stroke or dying.
There are behavioural symptoms too that include avoiding situations or physical activities (such as exercise) that might trigger panic attacks, and constantly seeking reassurance from others (such as going to the emergency room).
What happens during a panic attack?
“Think of it happening like a power surge going through the body, when our flight-or-flight system essentially overreacts. The sympathetic nervous system becomes highly active – while symptoms may start off more being subtle, such as feeling uneasy or on edge, these symptoms may quickly start to ramp up in intensity, such as a racing heart, hyperventilation, and shaking. More frightening sensations can then happen, such as dizziness, lightheadedness, and numbness, which can lead to worries about bad consequences happening (e.g., losing control, dying),” said Dr Sawchuk.
What about OCD and hypochondria?
Besides anxiety and panic attacks, there are some individuals who could suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Dr Sawchuk said: “Obsessive fears of contamination and associated compulsive hand washing/sanitising is a clinical problem based on an extreme anxiety response to situations that are, objectively, of very low threat of contamination.
In the present, we are dealing with a pandemic, so the objective threat is actually high. So the likely outcome is that for individuals who are OCD prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, their obsessive fears and contamination rituals will likely increase.
The fear of having contracted the virus may also trigger a latent tendency for hypochondria. Dr Sawchuk said, “I have been seeing this clinically. For people who meet clinical criteria for illness anxiety disorder (hypochondriasis) prior to the outbreak, the fears are escalating now. Likewise, some people are developing more illness anxiety concerns since the outbreak of the virus.
He said reasonable precautions have increased substantially in terms of hand washing, disinfecting, avoiding contact with others, and the like. “Stay within those guidelines, but try to not go overboard by taking these actions to extreme measures. For example, if one hoards hand sanitisers, then others will not have access; likewise, if you keep going to the doctor or emergency room with excessive fears that you have the virus, you in fact are taking up excess resources that must be spent on those who in actual need of care and ironically, you may be putting yourself at risk for community exposure.”
Tips to avoid anxiety
• Acknowledge your anxious feelings but learn to think positive
• Try ta detox when it comes to health-related news. Check for updates just once or twice a day
• Don’t look for reassurances, wither on the Internet or from doctors, without good reason
• Tell yourself it’s a passing phase.
• Talk to family members, friends
• Exercise regularly
• Learn to calm yourself through meditation or other techniques