• The coronavirus outbreak has made many people struggle to control their anxiety about family and loved ones

  • Philippa Perry, author of best-seller The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did), suggests you observe your emotions to lessen their impact

  • If you need to connect with a therapist, start your search here 

As well as a real virus that we have been told is extremely contagious and has a worrying incubation period that allows someone who is apparently well to be a “super-spreader”, there is the social contagion that is going around. We are all hearing and possibly sharing stories of worst possible scenarios and each time we hear or tell such a story our anxiety level rises and our obsession is fed. Not since World War II do I believe there has been such appetite for news. 

Some will be horrified by it, some will realise that, while on one level they may wish all this wasn’t happening, they are enjoying the drama. I normally enjoy social media but now it is reaching peak preach, and I’m having a rest from the hot topic of the moment. Except I have just been asked by Louise Chunn to write about it. I’ve turned down many an invitation to add my two pennyworth, but Louise is a friend and in these times, if our friends want something and it isn’t too inconvenient or foolish, maybe we should just do it. 

So I’m going to think a bit more about the social contagion aspects. The stories and the obsession they feed which goes with them feed a spreading panic. We can take all the practical steps we’ve been told to, but the socially spread panic means that we feel we need to do more so we create a shortage of toilet paper when there was not a shortage of toilet paper. But the paper is quite cheap, it doesn’t go off and having stuff may make you feel you have a buffer against something more ominous than running out of loo roll. 

What is that thing that is more ominous than running out of loo roll? You may be yelling “losing my mum to the virus you idiot”, or “nobody spending money at my cafe or my hairdressing business and yet, as we haven’t been told to close, we cannot claim insurance”. Yes, these are things to worry about and even to campaign about, but still there is fear. A novelist friend of mine feels like she is in a permanent panic attack. And no, telling her to calm down will not help her. Don’t you think she hasn’t tried to? 

I think what may be happening to all of us is that whatever fears we have, whatever areas we are super-sensitive about, this current socially-spread panic will multiply them because we have something to project them onto, the virus. And however anxious, stoic, insecure or cavalier we normally are, this socially contagious panic will make us more so.

It helps to observe your emotions, rather than feel them

So what can we do about it? The thing is to notice how charged your emotion feels. We don’t want to be hyper, nor do we want to close down and cut off from our feelings and be hypo. 

If you notice you are in a hyper or hypo state, instead of being in this state, observe yourself being over-anxious or shut down or cavalier, notice that ramped-up charge, but don’t be it. The point of developing an observer self is that you are not completely consumed by an over-charged or obsessive emotion. You will still have the feeling, but not the whole of you will completely be the feeling. 

The way social contagion works is that we completely get caught up in what is going around; being able to observe ourselves becoming caught up in it means that a part of ourselves is not caught up in it. Then we have more choice about what actions to take. We may then be able to reason that hoarding toilet paper won’t save our business or our mum and we can self-soothe in better ways than panicking, like listening to music, watching old films, re-reading a favourite comforting novel and turning off the news for a bit.

If all this resonates for you and may be helpful then good, but if it doesn’t land, and you cannot relate to it at all, well that’s fine too. We all will have our different ways of finding our way through the biological and the more widespread social contagions that are sweeping through the world right now. 

Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist and author of best-selling The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read

Further reading

Managing emotions: learning to soothe yourself

Therapist advice if coronavirus has triggered health anxiety and OCD

Boosting emotional resilience in the face of Covid-19

Information for therapists working online during coronavirus

3 simple anxiety-management techniques