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Dealing with anxiety in the time of coronavirus

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The recently declared “Pandemic” of COVID-19 has understandably lead to increased anxieties in people in general.
Anxiety can be a natural response to the threat and can guide people to take measures and safeguards to keep themselves safe and can be very protective.
However, it becomes ‘maladaptive’ when the very safeguards and measures to keep ‘safety’ become excessive, counterintuitive and disabling to the extent of becoming dysfunctional. This is where anxiety symptoms are excessive, out of proportion to the threat and lead to increased distress and disability. It is important that these reactions are recognised early and steps taken to address them before anxiety starts controlling us and our behaviour.
With the bombarding of constant news about COVID-19 and its impact on our normal way of life, people are experiencing varying levels of worry, fear and anxiety. What one considers as ‘normal’ anxiety serves the purpose of increasing our preparedness in an adaptive manner like ensuring adequate hand hygiene, social distancing , isolating /quarantining (if required) and adjusting to the day to day changing scenario by changes as needed and advised.
People who have a pre-existing anxious predisposition, or who have struggled with anxiety disorders may be more prone to develop maladaptive anxiety. People with clinical anxiety disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, health anxiety can have their main themes of anxiety replaced with themes of catching COVID-19, going for repeated tests, calling up the health line repeatedly, hoarding groceries, toilet paper etc and remaining preoccupied with the theme of COVID-19 at the cost of being with the family or managing their regular life.
These ‘sentinel’ events have the propensity to trigger catastrophic thinking, thoughts about loss of control, uncertainty of the future, and fears about worst case scenarios.
The question, however, remains as to how does one deal with maladaptive anxiety. The most important 1st step is to recognise it and become aware of it. Some ways in which you can do this is by questioning yourself :
Am I able to fulfil the obligations of my life adequately?
Am I getting excessively anxious?
Am I able to have a sound sleep or is my sleep getting disturbed?
Am I finding myself preoccupied with these worries most of the time such that it is affecting my day to day functioning?
Are my family, friends, work colleagues commenting on my preoccupation with finding more information, googling excessively, and other things at the cost of functioning adequately?
If the answers to any of the questions is yes, then this is something that needs attention and you need to act before it gets excessive or debilitating.
Before you may need to consider seeing a professional to manage this, you can take steps to manage these anxieties.
First and foremost: try to limit your information seeking to an authoritative, reliable source like the government and health department advisories, reputed websites or your GP.
Stop yourself from pouring over blogs, social media in search of ‘more and more’ information.
Incorporate activities that have a relaxing and calming effect on you. Listen to some music, or engage in activities that have interested you previously.
Manage your day to day responsibilities as best as you can by being in the here and now, focussing on the present.
Practice techniques like meditation, relaxation, mindfulness and sleep hygiene.
Channel your anxiety into preparedness rather than preoccupation.
If none of these help, it is time to stop and reconsider your options of seeking help.
Speak to your GP and discuss if counselling and specialist assessment may be needed.

(Dr Ashu Gandhi is a Consultant Psychiatrist who specialises in Anxiety Disorders and is a Senior Lecturer ( Adj) at School of Clinical Sciences at Monash University)

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