It’s difficult to count the number of times I’ve developed coronavirus (or SARS-CoV-2, if we are being specific) in recent weeks.
On an almost daily basis, my chest has become tight and my breathing feels unnatural. Thanks to the fact I’ve now read every available global account of coronavirus, I remember survivors talking of having a ‘gremlin’ gripped to their chests or, more comfortingly, the hand of death.
I clutch at my heart and briefly wonder if this is it. Amongst all the morbid speculations on my own death, I never imagined my time on this mortal coil would be extinguished by the love child of Jabba the Hutt and a sneezing bat.
Imagining the tiny pathogen storming my lungs, I lurch forward and feel momentarily outraged. Where did it find me? Tesco? On my daily walk? Was it that jogger that ran past me and exhaled in my face?
I knew he looked pale.
Realising the magnitude of the situation, my heart begins to race. Never one to miss out on an medical emergency, adrenaline and cortisol join the party – breathless and ready to round up the rest of my body. With the Riot Act now read, it’s not long before I have pins and needles in my fingers and my legs feel like lead.
Any hypochondriac worth their salt knows that these symptoms are the calling cards of COVID-19.
Despite my best efforts – despite my own health anxiety and the strict sanitary routines that come with it – it’s found me.
I’m done for.
My Relationship with Health Anxiety
Of course, these ‘flare ups’ of coronavirus have quickly petered out.
In fact, it would be safe to say I’ve never had COVID-19 – not even a mild dose of it.
What I have had, however, is persuasive, constant and neurotic health anxiety. An anxiety that is fantastically skilled at masquerading as almost any disease.
I’ve had health anxiety for as long as I can remember. It began with a fear of being sick (emetophobia), which soon meant that I wouldn’t eat after 8pm, ride rollercoasters or eat scampi.
Sometime after that, my attention moved to meningitis (granted, it was quite the escalation). One day, our primary school teacher announced we would be receiving our vaccination for the disease; explaining its importance through a series of haunting photographs.
While the other kids gave these images a cursory glance, I clutched them in terror: staring at images of purple mottled rashes and swollen limbs. I couldn’t finish my sandwiches that lunchtime.
The result, of course, was some sort of meningitis PTSD, which resulted in me spending the next four years obsessively rolling glasses over heat rashes and insect bites.
While the worrying in itself is of course draining, it’s perhaps health anxiety’s flair for mimicry that’s the worst part. It makes me feel genuinely unwell – a shapeshifter that can parade as both a brain tumour and a common cold; a rare tropical disease and smallpox – a disease that hasn’t been seen since the 1970s.
Try hard enough and it could probably convince me that I’ve got testicular cancer.
Of course, in my 33 years of living, I should say I’ve (thankfully) never actually had any of these illnesses or disorders. In fact, the most unwell I’ve ever been was when I had a particularly bad case of salmonella.
However, this isn’t an irony that my health anxiety is willing to acknowledge. As far as it’s concerned, my life has been one long assault course of dodging, avoiding and hurtling over possible threats and challenges.
And now? Well now it’s in its element – staring wide eyed at the headlines and hyperventilating over images of bleeping, crowded ICU units.
If anyone has been waiting for this global pandemic, it’s my health anxiety.
Coping with the Coronavirus Pandemic When You Already Have Health Anxiety
Coping with health anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic is challenging, difficult and (not to steal the Government’s over-used phrase) nothing short of a ‘Herculean’ effort.
In and amongst genuinely believing I’ve contracted the virus, I’ve also been incredibly anxious about my friends and family – particularly my parents. The worry is all consuming; something I can’t afford to take my eye off for even a second just in case the worst should happen.
The Peak of My Anxiety
As a true hyper-vigilante, I began to worry about COVID-19 in January.
The proud owner of some sort of distorted sixth sense, I immediately pick up on emerging health threats; fixating upon them before they even make the headlines.
On one particular evening in late January, I spent an evening watching disturbing videos of Wuhan’s population being swiftly barricaded inside their homes, as industrial sized machines disinfected streets and small trucks collected the sickly from the curb.
I felt faintly nauseous.
That night, as I lay in the dark thinking about what was happening in far-flung China, I had my first panic attack in months.
In some respects, this neuroticism served me well. I visited my parents twice in February and told them about my concerns regarding Coronavirus. They laughed off my worries and politely told me they’d try to use the vat of anti-bacterial gel I’d solemnly delivered.
It felt as though I’d just told them Christ was once again resurrected, or the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse were on their way (a slightly more welcoming alternative to Coronavirus, in my opinion).
Over the coming weeks, as the world carried on as if some lung-eating pathogen wasn’t slowly strangling our global population, I stocked up on antibacterial wipes, gel and a few face masks.
My boyfriend looked at me with a sad resignation. ‘I don’t know anybody else worrying about this’, he told me one night as I insisted we freeze a loaf of bread and pint of milk, ‘this isn’t a big deal’.
That night, I remember crying about the entire thing – wondering if maybe it was just me that was scared of this tiny, microscopic virus.
Of course, fast-forward a few weeks and I’m now trying to resist the urge to parade around as some sort of Oracle – regularly reminding my family that ‘I saw this coming’.
In a way, this has been both a blessing and a curse. Whilst I spent at least four weeks feeling physically sick about the spread of Coronavirus, it did give me a little bit of a head start in getting to grips with my health anxiety.
In fact, and since ‘lockdown’ began nearly three weeks ago, my anxiety levels have dropped. While I’m still having trouble sleeping (often waking up shouting ‘WHAT?’ for no apparent reason), during the day I’ve managed to get my health anxiety nearly under control. Now, hours pass without me even thinking about COVID-19.
This drop in anxiety might, of course, just be due to time and the fact that we have – against the odds- slowly adapted to the ‘new normal’ that has descended on our lives.
However, I’ve also worked hard to manage my health anxiety during the Coronavirus pandemic; employing important coping mechanisms, helpful ways of thinking and certain strategies to help me slow what was previously a runaway train.
The result is that whilst I’m not entirely anxiety-free (who is at the moment?), my health anxiety isn’t controlling my life.
In the hope that it might help others battling with their own mental health demons at the moment, I’ve put together a short summary of the tactics and strategies I’ve employed to keep me sane during this strange and difficult time.
1) Stop the Intelligence Gathering
While some might bury their heads in the sand when it comes to a global pandemic (political leaders), my own coping mechanism is to research every imaginable element of the problem.
My reasoning is, the more I can understand and comprehend it – the better I can control how it affects me, my family and friends.
The result is that I waste hours pouring over Twitter (looking for #mycovidstories) to analyse people’s symptoms and outcomes. I’ll waste a morning reading the news, and have been partial to spending an hour reading scientific journals to get a grasp on viruses, ‘cleavage sites’ and ACE2 receptors.
I now know more about multiple strangers’ health than I do my own. I know about their daily temperature readings and what their bowel habits are looking like (loose, mostly). Heck, I’ve even studied X-rays of the lining of their lungs.
With each bit of information I gather – or news briefing I tune into – I feel as though I’m closer to finding some sort of definitive solution or answer to solve all this; some sort of COVID-19 comfort blanket.
Of course, this isn’t true. What I’m doing – my endless consumption of information and opinions – is classic ‘safety seeking behaviour’, a neurotic offshoot of health anxiety.
This sort of ‘behaviour’ is often what we do when we feel very anxious or stressed. When I suffered from panic attacks, for example, I had a brief spell of only walking close to walls (a trying time), just in case I passed out.
Eventually, it became clear that this approach was going to limit my life quite considerably and my therapist encouraged me to (deep breath) try walking in open spaces. Not only was it irrational to spend the rest of my life only tracing the circumferences of buildings, but it clearly wasn’t going to ‘cure’ my anxiety.
The same goes for my quest for information. The truth is, I will never find a case study, a story, or a piece of information that will ‘solve’ or ‘fix’ the problem of a global pandemic; nothing that will immediately put my mind at ease.
Knowing that 1 in 10 patients might suffer from bad stomachs, or that COVID-19 is made up of 9 proteins, will not keep me safe.
Over the past fortnight, I’ve therefore tried to resist the urge to read about ‘Jean from Suffolk’s Coronavirus Nightmare’, or endless opinion pieces.
I keep up-to-date with the latest headlines, but that’s it. And you know what? Accepting that I won’t find an answer to all of this, or some silver bullet that will put my mind at ease, has perhaps been just as effective as finding the answer itself.
2) Wave Goodbye to ‘What If?’ Thoughts
‘What if I get Coronavirus and end up in hospital?’ ‘What if my Dad or Mum get Coronavirus?’ ‘When will this end?’ ‘How will it end?’ ‘What if they can’t find a vaccine?’ ‘What if somebody touches the cat while he’s out and he unleashes an army of deadly pathogens into the house?
‘What if’ thoughts are health anxiety’s fuel. Engage with a ‘what if’ thought and your anxiety will only grow in size, growing stronger and even more commanding.
If you think about it, we could spend all day caught up in endless ‘what if’ thoughts. What if I get knocked over by a bus on my run? What if a vending machine lands on me while I’m getting a drink?
Nearly always negative (nobody ever seems to spend their days thinking ‘what if everything in my life was going to turn out OK?), these sort of thoughts not only cause a lot of anxiety, but needlessly so.
A favourite mantra of mine is ‘just because you think it, doesn’t make it true’. When it was first revealed to me that 90% of my thoughts were fiction – outrageous speculation based on nothing more than a few erratic emotions and fears, I laughed.
Surely everything my clever and astute brain was telling me, or warning me about, was legitimate?
However, and as it turns out, our brains are a little bit like tabloid newspapers. They love a good story: a bit of drama, a bit of hyperbole, a dash of existential fear.
Of course, they do this for a very good reason – they want to keep us safe. However, when let loose – with no attempt to control them, or put them in perspective – they quickly become unhelpful.
Instead, we end up paralysed: stuck in some sort of strange thought purgatory, where what we are fearing hasn’t happened yet, but we also can’t be sure that it won’t happen.
Although managing these thoughts is hard (‘what if my parents get sick?’ has been a particularly tough one to sit with), I’ve been doing my best to not engage with my Merry Men of ‘What Ifs?’ – there’s very little point.
Although turning the thought over and over in your head might feel as though you are somehow dealing with the problem – you aren’t. All you are doing is getting caught in an anxiety-inducing cycle of rumination, with no clear or helpful ending.
So, and next time you feel yourself entertaining a ‘what if’ thought, realise that it is as much fiction as it is fact. You don’t need to engage with it and nor will giving it attention help you.
Put it back in its box of ‘what ifs’ and try to move on.
3) You Can Enjoy This Time (Distraction)
When it comes to health anxiety – particularly during this Coronavirus pandemic – distracting yourself feels counterintuitive.
Why would I want to skip through a field, or paint, when the biggest crisis in a century is taking place? Like the lean, agile anxiety athlete that I am, I must be prepared. I must sit on my sofa and anxiously wait for – well, I’m not sure what.
It seems that in not letting myself relax, or distract myself with nice things, I’ve decided that I’ll somehow outwit this Coronavirus – it’ll never get me.
But, this spiky pathogen isn’t some dangerous army that’s surrounding my house. It isn’t sat waiting for the moment I slip up – belly laughing at the US Office or doing an online yoga class – before it can creep in through my window.
Being uptight, neurotic and well, miserable, won’t save me from COVID-19.
In a way, this line of thinking makes sense. I’m sure as Neanderthals, being constantly on the look out for danger was extremely beneficial. Indeed, indulging in a short meditation exercise was probably not the best idea when a sabre-toothed tiger was waiting in the wings.
However, today this sort of behaviour has little bearing on how safe we’ll stay. Of course, we can and should take the usual precautions: staying home, washing hands and exercising at a safe distance. But, past this, there’s little else you can do.
So, try and find time to relax, to laugh, to enjoy this time at home. Distraction is the best way to deal with health anxiety – providing you with respite from difficult thoughts and emotions.
I know it feels perhaps morally wrong, or counter-intuitive, but relaxing and smiling won’t mean you’ve somehow left yourself exposed to Coronavirus; seriousness is not an armour. If anything, it’ll only boost your immune system, benefit your mental health and help you cope much better with this disorientating time.
Ideas for Meaningful Distraction
Of course, not all distractions were born equal.
While it might be tempting to use Netflix, binge eating and copious amounts of wine to distract from the Coronavirus pandemic, sometimes it’s good to break things up with what my therapist once called: ‘meaningful distractions’.
These are the sorts of distractions that give you purpose (apparently a pre-requisite of happiness), improve your health, get the endorphins pumping and provide tangible results.
I should add, this is no time to get holier than thou when it comes to distractions. If spending the day scrolling ‘Tiger King’ memes alleviates your health anxiety, by all means continue. However, here are just a few ‘meaningful distractions’ that I have found helpful:
Volunteering: thanks to my ever cautious health anxiety, the thought of volunteering initially made me feel slightly panicked.
Would I be sent into people’s homes? Into some sort of unsafe environment riddled with germs? Would I offend people if I wore gloves?
However, once I got a grip of these ‘what if?’ thoughts, I realised volunteering would not only help fill the days, but give me that meaningful sort of purpose that my therapist bangs on about.
To date, I’ve signed up to volunteer with my local food bank via the Trussell Trust, registered as a NHS volunteer and have left my name with my local community group – providing food deliveries where it can.
Apparently, the best thing we can do when we feel anxious is to ask ourselves ‘how can I be of value to someone else?’ It might sound a little worthy, but it’s incredibly effective.
Exercise: I know, I know. Who hasn’t suggested that we manage our health anxiety during this Coronavirus pandemic with exercise?
But there’s good reason as to why so many people advocate it – it works.
Each time you exercise, your brain floods your body with a happy gang of anxiety-busting neuro-chemicals, including: serotonin, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), brain-derived neurotrophic factor and endocannabinoids.
Now, I have absolutely no idea what these chemicals do, but I can testify to how they make you feel: happy, optimistic and, dare I say it, calm.
Join In Online: I initially rolled my eyes when I saw just how many people were ‘going live’ on Instagram during lockdown.
I even saw a baby racoon give it a whirl.
However, as the days of limited social contact wore on, I realised I desperately needed interaction that extended beyond handing hourly cups of tea to my boyfriend, or shooting the breeze with the cat.
I wanted to feel part of a group, again.
Asking our Instagram audience for ideas for live classes, we were inundated with suggestions: from live ‘Breath Work’ sessions to Origami classes. There were live piano concerts taking place, cook alongs and virtual pub quizzes.
Feeling part of something wider has not only distracted me from my anxiety, but has made me feel happier, more connected and ultimately, more optimistic.
4) We’re All In This Together
One of the hardest things about health anxiety is the way that it can often isolate us.
I once told my therapist that during my most intense periods of anxiety, it felt as though everyone else was cruising happily down a motorway, whilst I’d somehow taken a fork in the road and was now crashing down a dirt track.
It was like being in an alternative universe; my very own (less glamorous) version of Sliding Doors.
Anxiety’s Alternative Reality is a horrible place to find yourself in. While everything looks normal, it also feels very different (although, of course, you’re the only one to notice).
However, things are different during the current Coronavirus pandemic.
Unfortunately, as the entire globe is placed on lockdown, we are all experiencing the same questions, anxieties and stressors. What once felt like an isolating experience is now a shared, common and mainstream one.
Of course, that so many of us are suffering is nothing to celebrate, but it should also – I hope – ease some of your anxiety.
When I begin to feel my anxiety building, I try to remember that around the world, millions of people are feeling the same – that this isn’t a me vs. the world sort of scenario.
Furthermore, around the globe, thousands of people are seeking to find answers to this virus (with over 100 leading teams currently working on a vaccine), millions are caring for people who are unwell, and even more are trying to keep us safe.
You are not going through this alone, and nor are your anxieties or worries irrational, unusual or a sign that you are not coping.
We are all in this together.
5) What to do if Symptoms Start
Now, I’ll be the first to admit, at the slightest sign of a cough, or ache in my back, I start to panic.
I might be exercising, volunteering, attending live breath workshops and baking sourdough starters – but the moment I think I might have actually caught Coronavirus, I lose it.
My health anxiety finally sees its opportunity, hits the panic button and seizes power.
Of course, if you really are getting sick, being anxious – something that causes a tight chest and breathlessness anyway – is far from ideal. So, how can you stay calm?
For a lot of people with health anxiety, much of our fear boils down to control (or lack of).
I hate getting ill at the best of times; even a cold can send me spiralling. There’s something about feeling your body responding in a way you’ve not asked it to that’s frightening. Not knowing what your next symptom might be, when you’ll get better, how bad you’ll feel and for how long, results in a lot of uncertainty – something us control freaks fear.
Coronavirus poses a similar challenge, but on steroids. When you get the flu, or a stomach virus, you know the drill: five days of perhaps feeling awful, before a speedy road to recovery. You’ve been here before, you know the score.
However, Coronavirus is an entirely new virus – one we can’t predict. For those with health anxiety, this realisation is like taking a bullet (something I would perhaps prefer at this point). It’s this that makes this virus so scary. Once we start to feel unwell, we don’t know where it’ll go – what to expect, how to deal with it and what to do.
Should I expect night sweats or vomiting? Breathlessness or blinding headaches? Life or death?
So, my friends, there is only one thing we can do – the one thing that’s hardest of all for us to swallow.
We need to find some element of acceptance.
If we begin to feel unwell, the best thing we can do is (laughs nervously) accept our current situation and trust the illness to play out as it needs to.
Remember, the vast majority of people (somewhere between 80-90%) get mild symptoms and recover at home. Your body is adept at dealing with viruses and getting through illness – it’s played this role your entire life. When you’ve had a nasty virus in the past, I’m sure you’ve done exactly as you’ve been advised to do now – rested, stayed warm, monitored your symptoms and trusted it will pass.
As hard as it is, and as difficult as it is coping with health anxiety during this outbreak of Coronavirus, we should all remember that this isn’t permanent: not even this virus, not even this pandemic.
Sooner or later, your illness, this virus, will be a memory – a drop in the ocean of our lives, and something we can hopefully come out of, stronger.