NAT STRESSED-1583829588552
Stress can weaken the immune system, say psychologists Image Credit: Getty Images

Dubai: Coronavirus, no doubt, is spreading fast. But if there’s one thing that’s spreading faster, it is the fear of the virus itself.

No matter where you are, what you do or who you speak to, the perceived threat of coronavirus simply takes centre stage, leaving little or no room for anything else.

Recognising the fear of coronavirus is starting point in dealing with the issue Image Credit: Gulf News

Dubai-based psychologists, who are seeing many patients gripped by an overwhelming sense of fear and panic, however, caution against such negative emotions as the resultant stress, depression and anxiety can only prove counter-productive in the battle against coronavirus.

Just how can residents fight the fear?

A good place to start, according to the experts, is to acknowledge that such feelings are natural.

As the World Health Organisation (WHO) in its advisory on how to cope with coronavirus-related stress pointed out, “It is normal to feel sad, stressed, confused, scared or angry during a crisis.” But understanding it and dealing with it in a positive way makes a difference.

Kim Henderson, clinical psychologist at the Dubai-based German Neuroscience Centre, said, “As more information relating to the coronavirus unfolds, including the news, recent travel restrictions and concerns for you and your loved ones, it can be very common that people experience stress, sadness, stress and helplessness and more; such as feeling the need to isolate and withdraw from others or public spaces, feeling unsafe and overwhelmed. You also might experience difficulty sleeping or concentrating, and sometimes experience physical symptoms of anxiety or fear which might be new to you.”

Kim Henderson

In the specific context of coronavirus, she said, “It has affected lives, global stock markets and the global economy. We don’t have to look very far to find threatening information bombarding us from all angles. Irresponsible coverage of the coronavirus in some quarters is also contributing to misinformation, fear and panic.”

Another Dubai-based clinical psychologist, Dr Roghy Mccarthy at the Counselling and Development Clinic in Dubai, said this is not the first time she is seeing this “scale of panic”, among both adults and youngsters.

“In my practice, I have a seen a similar scale of fear on two other occasions – during the SARS outbreak and the HIV crisis earlier. There is a paranoia that sets in. People start isolating themselves, shut others out and stop going anywhere, to the point that they become hysterical, anxious and clinically depressed.”

Dr Roghy Mccarthy

But as she pointed out, “Being stressed weakens the immune system, which is not a good thing at all if you have to fight a flu or any other infection. Yes, people must be careful, but not paranoid. They must learn to make adjustments in their lives and move on.”

Isn’t that easier said than done?

Henderson said, “People first need to acknowledge their feelings and allow themselves time to notice and express them – perhaps by talking to others, doing something creative or practising mindfulness. Maintain your normal day-to-day activities and routine where possible. Stay connected to credible sources of information that you trust and avoid panic and fear that can be caused by misinformation. Follow protection and prevention recommendations provided by qualified health professionals.”

According to the psychologists, worrying excessively about coronavirus doesn’t necessarily mean someone has a psychological disorder. The problem arises when it starts affecting the person in their day-to-day life.

NAT STRESSED11-1583829600562
Worrying excessively about coronavirus doesn’t necessarily mean someone has a psychological disorder Image Credit: Getty Images

“We tend to use counter-productive strategies to help calm our anxiety. There are ways to dampen down physical and emotional symptoms. One way is to stop checking; for example, stop looking for signs of illness – constant checking runs the risk of us finding unfamiliar physical sensations which are usually harmless but increase the anxiety. Purposeful regular breathing exercises can reset the fight or flight response and prevent the onset of panic and restlessness,” said Henderson. “Most importantly, don’t isolate yourself. Relationships are crucial to maintaining perspective, increasing our mood and allowing ourselves to be distracted. Keep talking – find alternatives is necessary like video callings,” she added.

Dr Mccarthy said worrying is a compulsion one must guard against. “It can be as bad as someone wanting to smoke or consume alcohol if they are stressed. It is necessary to think positive and channel our energies in a productive way.”

Children too can become consumed by the negativity surrounding coronavirus if parents don’t take care.

“My advice would be to take your cue from your child. If they open the topic then encourage them to tell you anything that they are concerned about and ask how they feel. Be prepared to answer questions but try not to prompt them. Your goal in these conversations is to avoid encouraging frightening fantasies while still validating their feelings and experiences. We can handle children’s general anxiety around the coronavirus by sticking to a normal routine, allowing them to express themselves, reassuring them and focus on what we can do to stay safe,” said Henderson.

Keeping children occupied goes along way too.

Bhavna Mishra, founder of Browzly, a reading-for-pleasure online platform, said, “The recent coronavirus crisis has triggered unprecedented panic and stress in our society. At this time, as children stay at home, as a huge advocate of reading for pleasure, I’d like to highlight the 2009 study at the University of Sussex which showed that reading for only 6 minutes can reduce stress levels by up to 68 per cent. Starting a book which has no direct correlation to our daily routines can help you forget your own worries.”

In what has been a timely move, Mishra said on this World Book Day (March 5), Browzly launched #20MinuteThursdays. “These are 20 minute read-alouds from handpicked books that students, teachers and parents get on their Browzly accounts as video or audio posts to listen on the go any time. There are also discussion questions/ quizzes shared for students, teachers and families on the app.”

WHO guidelines to cope with coronavirus-related stress.

How to cope with stress during the Covid-19 outbreak

• Talking to people you trust can help. Contact your friends and family.

• If you must stay at home, maintain a healthy lifestyle - including proper diet, sleep, exercise and social contacts with loved ones at home and by email and phone with other family and friends.

• Don’t use smoking, alcohol or other drugs to deal with your emotions.

• If you feel overwhelmed, talk to a health worker or counsellor. Have a plan, where to go to and how to seek help for physical and mental health needs if required.

• Get the facts. Gather information that will help you accurately determine your risk so that you can take reasonable precautions. Find a credible source you can trust such as WHO website or, a local or state public health agency.

• Limit worry and agitation by lessening the time you and your family spend watching or listening to media coverage that you perceive as upsetting.

• Draw on skills you have used in the past that have helped you to manage previous life’s adversities and use those skills to help you manage your emotions during the challenging time of this outbreak.

Helping children cope with stress during the Covid-19 outbreak

• Children may respond to stress in different ways such as being more clingy, anxious, withdrawing, angry or agitated, bedwetting etc.

• Respond to your child’s reactions in a supportive way, listen to their concerns and give them extra love and attention.

• Children need adults’ love and attention during difficult times. Give them extra time and attention.

• Remember to listen to your children, speak kindly and reasure them.

• If possible, make opportunities.

• Try and keep children close to their parents and family and avoid separating children and their caregivers to the extent possible. If separation occurs (e.g. hospitalization) ensure regular contact (e.g. via phone) and re-assurance.

• Provide facts about what has happened, explain what is going on now and give them clear information about how to reduce their risk of being infected by the disease in words that they can understand depending on their age.

• This also includes providing information about what could happen in a re-assuring way (e.g. a family member and/or the child may start not feeling well and may have to go to the hospital for some time so doctors can help them feel better).