Having info at the push of a button is as much a blessing as it is a curse.
My first instance of severe health anxiety coincided with the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
I was frantic. I couldn’t stop reading news or citing information I’d learned, all while being convinced I had it.
I was in full-on panic mode, regardless of the fact it was almost exclusively contained to West Africa.
When I first heard about the new coronavirus, I was with one of my best mates. After a night at our favorite pub, we sat around his flat and read the news.
While 95 percent of it was Brexit-related — it was Jan. 30 — a bit was about the emerging outbreak in China.
We punched in the figures, compared it to the flu, and went to sleep feeling not all that worried.
Coming from two people with health anxiety, that was huge.
But in the months since, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the virus we now know as COVID-19 a pandemic.
Public events and festivals are being canceled, the world over. Cafes, bars, restaurants, and pubs are closing their doors. People are panic-buying pasta, toilet paper, and hand wash in such extreme amounts some stores have had to start rationing their stock.
Governments are doing their best — sometimes, their worst — to limit the number of casualties, and many of us are being told to self-isolate, not to stop the spread but to contain it.
To a healthy mind, that says, “Social distancing will help us to contain the virus and protect our vulnerable family and pals.” But, to a health anxiety-riddled mind, it says, “You have the coronavirus and you’re going to die, as is everyone you love.”
All in all, the last few weeks have made me reevaluate what this influx of information has been doing to my anxiety brethren and how I can help.
You see, with health anxiety, having info at the push of a button is as much a blessing as it is a curse.
A good, on-the-nose way of figuring out if you have health anxiety is Google’s autocorrect feature. Basically, if you type “Do I have…” often, then congratulations, you’re one of us.
Indeed, Dr. Google is the health anxiety sufferer’s longest and deadliest frenemy. I mean, how many of us have turned to Google to figure out what our symptoms mean?
Even people who don’t have health anxiety do it.
However, because health anxiety is a somatic pain in the bum, those of us who do have it know a simple question can guide us down the path of no return.
And if you’re anything like me? Your Google history has likely seen variations on a theme since news of the coronavirus broke out:
Personally, I’m lucky that I’m not feeling a lot of anxiety around it, but I know if I was, search results like this could put me mentally out of action for weeks.
That’s because with health anxiety, OCD, or general anxiety disorders, it’s all too easy to start obsessing — which then leads to worry, panic, and high stress levels that mess with our immune systems.
Although you can tell yourself — or be told — to calm down, it doesn’t mean that logic will stop your body and mind from going overboard like Goldie Hawn in a 80s classic.
However, there are things you can do to help decrease that worry.
Technically, there isn’t a ton we can do about the spread of the new coronavirus. Similarly, there isn’t a lot we can do about the spread of panic internally or globally.
But there is a lot we can do for the well-being of ourselves and others.
Avoid sensationalized media outlets
If you’re panic-prone, one of the worst things you can do is tune into the media.
The media revolves around a machine where sensationalized stories get the most column inches. Basically, fear sells papers. It’s also much easier to encourage panic buying than report on why it’s actually dangerous.
Instead of tuning into news stations or inevitably reading about the virus online, be selective about your media intake. You can stay informed without encouraging a tailspin.
- Get your information directly from the
World Health Organization.
- Healthline’s live coronavirus updates are also super helpful and credible!
- If you’re like me, and logic and statistics are a great way of keeping the lid on your health anxiety, the coronavirus megathread on r/askscience is great.
- Reddit’s r/anxiety also has a couple of threads I’ve found helpful, offering positive coronavirus news and another coronavirus megathread with excellent advice.
Essentially, don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain — er, or read sensational newspapers.
Wash your hands
We can’t contain the spread, but we can limit it by taking care of personal hygiene.
Although this is often hard when you’re in the midst of a depressive slump, it’s also the most effective way to cull germs.
Because of how COVID-19 spreads, health professionals recommend washing your hands when you get home or to work, if you blow your nose, sneeze, or cough, and before you handle food.
Instead of worrying about whether or not you’ve contracted or passed the virus to others, wash your hands along to Gloria Gaynor singing ‘I Will Survive.’
AKA, the viral content we deserve.
Stay as active as you can
With health anxiety, it’s important to keep your mind and body occupied.
Whether you’re a fan of exercise or are more stimulated by mental puzzles, keeping yourself busy is an essential way of keeping nagging symptoms — and Googling — at bay.
Instead of searching for the latest news on the pandemic, keep yourself occupied:
- If you’re social distancing, there are plenty of fitness channels on YouTube to get your at-home workout on.
- Go for a walk around the block. You’ll be amazed at how a bit of fresh air can free up your mind.
- Grab a brain training app, do some puzzles, or read a book to keep yourself occupied.
If you’re doing something else, there’s less time to think about the symptoms you’ve been worrying about.
Own your worry but don’t succumb to it
As somebody with an anxiety or mental health disorder, it’s essential to validate your feelings.
A pandemic is serious business, and your worries about it are completely valid, whether you’ve been in contact with a person who has the virus or haven’t left your room in a few weeks.
In place of being annoyed at yourself that you can’t stop worrying, accept that you’re worried and don’t blame yourself. But it’s important not to get bogged down by the worry, either.
Instead, pay it forward.
Think about the people most vulnerable — your older neighbors and those with chronic or autoimmune illnesses — then ask yourself what you can do to help them.
It’s amazing how good you can feel about doing something as simple as picking up a carton of milk for someone.
Try not to seek unnecessary medical advice
Those of us with health anxiety are used to two things: seeing medical professionals excessively, or not at all.
It’s common for us to book appointments with physicians if we’re worrying about our symptoms. That said, because of the severity of the new coronavirus on those most susceptible to it, only serious cases are being seen in most countries. Thus, calling an emergency number if you’re worried about a cough could block the line for someone under duress.
Instead of resorting to contacting physicians, keep a relaxed eye on your symptoms.
It’s important we remember people with health anxiety can get sick, too — but equally important to remember not to jump to the worst case scenario.
I wrote about combatting this cycle just last year, which you can read here.
Self-isolate — but don’t cut yourself off from the world
From boomers and gen xers or millennial and gen z peers, you’ve probably heard, “I’m too young to be affected.” It’s frustrating, especially as the only thing we know for sure is that socially distancing ourselves is the one thing that can slow the spread.
And, while a lot of people in the middle of a health anxiety spiral are prompted to stay home or in bed by default, we still need to adhere to it.
Self-isolating doesn’t just limit your chances of catching the virus, doing so also protects older adults and immunocompromised people from catching it.
While this opens up other problems like handling the loneliness epidemic, there’s also a lot we can do to support our friends, family, and neighbors without having to see them face to face.
Instead of worrying about not seeing your loved ones, call and text them more often.
We’re at the best point in history to maintain contact regardless of distance. I mean, who knew that 20 years ago we’d be able to make video calls on our phones?
Additionally, you can offer to collect groceries, prescriptions, or deliveries, which you can then leave on their doorstep. After all, thinking of others is an excellent way to step outside yourself in the midst of a health anxiety episode.
A lot of us are used to being alone, but there’s an extra aspect of WTF-ery when you don’t have a choice.
Many mental health problems are perpetuated by being alone, too, which means self-isolation can be dangerous for those of us prone to depression.
The thing is, everybody needs connection to other people.
After spending the bulk of my young adulthood in the swathes of severe depression that left me isolated, I finally made friends. These friends not only opened my eyes to the fact more of us are dealing with some kind of mental illness than not, but also offered a support system in times of need, with the same given in return.
Human beings are social creatures, after all. And in a world of ambiverts, it’s a huge leap to go from constant contact to none whatsoever.
But it’s also not the end of the world. There are tons of things we can do to occupy our minds while we’re in isolation. And as a result, tons for those with health anxiety to do to distract ourselves from our symptoms.
Facts are facts: The outbreak is here, Jean Claude Van Damme stopped making decent movies in the early 90s, and it’s up to us to protect other people.
If you haven’t seen the simulator in the Washington Post yet, it’s probably the best argument for social distancing.
But what can we do while we’re maintaining the curve? Well, lots of things.
Things to do during quarantine to ease your anxiety
- Have a household clearout, Marie Kondo style! Having a clean home is an amazing boost for people with depression. If you’ve unintentionally become a hoarder over the last few years, now is as good a time as any to get started.
- How about that hobby you’ve been neglecting for work? How long has it been since you picked up a pen or paintbrush? Is your guitar, like mine, coated in dust? What about that novel you were supposed to write? Being isolated gives us a lot of free time, and doing things we enjoy is perfect for circumventing the worry cycle.
- Do things you enjoy, no matter what they are. You could read through the pile of books you’ve been accumulating or play video games. If, like me, you have a dark sense of humor and it isn’t a trigger, you could even give Pandemic 2 a whirl. I also guarantee there’s a lot of Netflix to binge, and it’s time we stopped seeing fun things as a distraction from life. In a lot of cases — especially now — we need distracting. If it keeps your mind from worry mode and makes you happy, in the words of Prophet Shia Labeouf: just do it.
- Recalibrate your routine. If you’re used to an office environment, having a routine at home can help the days stop bleeding into one another. Whether it’s a self-care regimen or household tasks, routines are fab ways of overcoming anxious cycles.
- It’s never a bad time to learn. Maybe you can finally pick up that online course you’ve been eyeing? Free Code Camp has a list of 450 ivy league courses you can take for free.
- Virtually hang out with friends. As a teenager, I would have loved to be able to play video games with my friends online. Not to mention people all over the world. There are tons of apps you can use to hang out with your friends and family. You can have a virtual meetup with Zoom, play games together on Discord, whinge about the coronavirus in a WhatsApp group, and FaceTime or Skype with your older family members.
- Find someone to talk to, or someone who needs it. Not all of us are lucky enough to have people around us, even virtually. When you have anxiety or depression, it’s far easier to cut yourself off from the world than it is to get back into it. If this is the case, you can contact a helpline or join a forum like No More Panic. Alternatively, join a forum about something you’re interested in and meet people that way.
- Revel in global culture from the comfort of your living room. All of the cool things becoming accessible during the pandemic have been blowing my mind. You can live stream classical music concerts and operas with the Met or the Berlin Philharmonic; Paris Musées has made more than 150,000 works of art open content, meaning you can virtually tour Paris’ best museums and galleries for free; tons of musicians including Christine & the Queens and Keith Urban are live streaming from home, while others have virtual jam sessions you can tune into across the globe.
And that’s just scratching the surface of the possibilities life online has to offer.
If anything good comes from this pandemic, it’ll be a newfound togetherness.
For example, people who haven’t experienced depression, OCD, or health anxiety might experience it for the first time. On the other hand, we might reach out to family and friends more often than we would if we were otherwise occupied.
The new coronavirus is no joke.
But neither is health anxiety — nor any other mental health condition.
It’s going to be hard, both mentally and physically. But where we can’t entirely control an outbreak, we can work with our thought patterns and responses to it.
With health anxiety, that’s the best thing we have in our arsenal.
Em Burfitt is a music journalist whose work has been featured in The Line of Best Fit, DIVA Magazine, and She Shreds. As well as being a cofounder of queerpack.co, she’s also incredibly passionate about making mental health conversations mainstream.