Managing an anxiety disorder in the midst of coronavirus
24 March 2020
By Alethea Joshi
This is a truly weird time for everyone, but some of us may have found that the concerns around coronavirus and the general atmosphere of anxiety have exacerbated our mental health problems. I’m six days into our new Social Distancing regime and can already feel the impact on my mental health.
Whilst OCD is not only a fear about contamination and germs, this is an exceptionally difficult time for people who do have health anxieties, compulsions around handwashing, or obsessions about people they love dying. However, I was initially less worried about it than some of the more “well” people around me. My obsessions focus largely on irrational and bizarre fears, so perhaps it follows that when it came to a real, logical concern such as getting ill from an actual virus, I was largely unfazed. But all that has now changed.
We’re now well into the next stage, where no one can ignore the impact of coronavirus, whether you’re worried about catching it or just frustrated by restrictions on daily life.
...perhaps it follows that when it came to a real, logical concern such as getting ill from an actual virus, I was largely unfazed...
For those of us who already found everyday life a challenge, coronavirus – and the current state of ‘lockdown’ – is not likely to make things any easier. For me, managing my mental health and seeking to ‘recover’ from OCD means getting out, being around people, and not sitting in the house all day. It also means doing Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) exercises, which are far from fun, but which help me to stay well. And whilst commuting can be difficult, being in the office can be a great distraction from the anxious thoughts which all too easily set up camp in my head. ‘Social distancing’ makes all of this much more difficult right now. Social isolation will make it almost impossible.
But first things first: if you’re struggling more than usual , there are people to talk to who are ready to listen and understand what you’re going through. Please take a look at this list of helplines.
whilst commuting can be difficult, being in the office can be a great distraction from the anxious thoughts which all too easily set up camp in my head
For those like me who are wondering how we’re going to manage our mental health or maintain ‘recovery’, I’m clearly no expert, but here’s what I’m going to attempt.
Practising acceptance: I find it helpful to recognise and accept that this is a difficult time for everyone, whether or not you have a mental health problem. That could sound pessimistic, but by accepting that these are objectively challenging times, I can hopefully be a little less hard on myself if I do struggle more.
Mobilising support networks: It might be one friend who you can chat to about your mental health or a small group. For me, it’s a WhatsApp thread with a few family members where I can message if I’m having a difficult time. It can be easy (especially at the moment) to feel that I shouldn’t burden others with my stress because everyone is having a hard time. But the people who care about us want to be a support, so please reach out to them.
Doing the things that help me stay well: Right now, everything in the world looks very different. But that’s all the more reason to keep up the things we know will help us to stay well. For me, this means getting out of the house (even if it is only once a day) and continuing to do ERP exercises where possible. These exercises are extremely challenging and this is not ‘normal life’, so it would be easy to decide I am exempt from normal routines, give up ERP altogether and instead get lost in Netflix. But I’m trying to remind myself of the critical reasons for keeping up with these practices: they will help me stay well. For you it might be something else – still doing a daily Mindfulness practice or taking some exercise. I also find it useful to be accountable to someone else for doing these things when I’m low on motivation.
These exercises are extremely challenging and this is not ‘normal life’, so it would be easy to decide I am exempt from normal routines, give up ERP altogether and instead get lost in Netflix
Make the most of good support online: Especially if you don’t have a good support network, there are online networks out there which can help you connect with others who might be facing the same struggles. You could try Mind’s Elefriends community, or you might appreciate a more specific network – I’ve found the NOCD app useful. If you already attend a support group, it may be that it’s going online. Sometimes ‘going digital’ can feel like more effort, but I know that connecting with others (especially if they have similar experience) can also keep me healthy.
Taking all possible opportunities to connect: In my case, OCD thrives on silence, disconnection and isolation. Contemplating months of this scenario, and the idea that it could send my progress into reverse, is therefore pretty scary. But (as we’ve all heard by now, many times) there are lots of ways to connect and I intend to use them. For now, that means connecting with friends and family wherever possible; breaking up the day with a walk or a phone call; and connecting regularly with colleagues to remind myself that I am part of something bigger than my kitchen table.
- If you're struggling and need to talk to someone, contact Samaritans or call 116 123.
- Anxiety UK have extended their helpline hours to support more people during the pandemic - find out more
- The OCD Stories podcast has a good special episode on coronavirus
- Bella Mackie, writing for Vogue, on managing anxiety in a pandemic
- OCD Action’s advice during COVID-19 (more focused on contamination OCD)
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