Therapist Advice if Coronavirus has Triggered Health Anxiety and OCD
The coronavirus outbreak has triggered health anxiety and exacerbated OCD symptoms in many
Our welldoing.org therapists share their practical tips to managing health anxiety at this challenging time
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The coronavirus pandemic is a situation unlike any that many of us have faced before. Even for those of us without existing mental health struggles like anxiety, our thoughts are preoccupied with the ever-changing playing field. Concerns about our health, that of our loved ones, and what life might look like during the coming weeks – possibly months – are rife. Beyond health concerns, people are understandably concerned about financial uncertainty caused by work opportunities being cancelled.
Shelley Cushway, a welldoing.org hypnotherapist in East Sussex, says "I have had a number of my clients expressing concerns and rising anxiety". Mark Bailey, a psychotherapist who works in Central London and online, agrees: "If you already have anxiety or have had it, the coronavirus will doubtless trigger you". Louise Carroll, a CBT-therapist in SW London says: "People who suffer health anxiety often superstitiously believe that they are more likely to become unwell, even if they are perfectly healthy. This triggers anxiety and a habitual, vicious circle of debilitating thoughts, emotions and behaviour which might include obsessive checking for potential symptoms and over estimating the likelihood of catching germs." Many more therapists are offering their clients online therapy instead of usual face-to-face appointments.
The constant updates are hard to ignore, but this barrage of information can exacerbate health anxiety without actually offering any practical solutions and thus increase feelings of powerlessness. We've spoken to some welldoing.org therapists to gather practical advice for those whose health anxiety and OCD symptoms have been triggered by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Managing health anxiety during the coronavirus
"Rationality and calmness are important assets", says therapist Mark Bailey. "The trick with anxiety is to control the things you can and let go of the things you cannot. Stay in the moment – it's very easy to leap into the future with your thoughts. Anxiety, being future-based, encourages this and too much media consumption propagates this tendency. Limit your intake of news to 30-minutes a day, from trusted, fact-checked sources."
CBT-therapist and hypnotherapist Louise Carroll suggests: "Firstly, be aware of your how your thoughts are affecting how you feel. Has coronavirus spiked your normal concern to keep safe and well into an extreme, nagging state of anxiety? Are you hooked into assuming the worst? Remind yourself of a more calming perspective and tune into reality. Maybe things will be less bad than we predict. Shift to a more soothing, coping mode rather than a panic mode. Instead of ‘This is unbearable, it’s the end of the world! try ‘This is hard but I can cope!’. This opens you up to feeling more constructive and solution-focused."
Another feature of anxiety is hypervigilance. Birmingham-based and online therapist Rajnish Virk recommends people with anxiety try to minimise time spent thinking about their potential symptoms: "Take note of any symptoms you feel you have, but try not to focus on these too strongly beyond taking the NHS-recommended precautions. Anxiety can heighten symptoms and physical sensations. Remember you are reading more news and bringing more awareness to this situation than you likely would normally; it's entirely possible that an anxious mind creates symptoms that you wouldn't be aware of without taking in so much news."
Shelley Cushway is advising her concerned clients to:
- Stay up to date with key messages via good news sources and try to stay away from constantly checking social media. Some of the social media reports are alarmist and its easy to be drawn in to panic.
- Look after yourself and feel in control of your own actions. If you take the lead with the advice around handwashing and distance it feels more like you are doing something to contribute to the collective efforts to reduce the risk.
- Focus on normal day-to-day activities, engage with those around you, be interested in them and what they’re doing, enjoy having fun with the children if you have them. This keeps a sense of normality and stops too much focus on the issue.
- If you feel anxious, focus on your breathing, ground yourself in the present moment and use your self-talk and coping skills to reduce your anxiety levels.
Managing OCD behaviours during coronavirus
"Coronavirus may be especially difficult for OCD sufferers who practise compulsive rituals such as excessive hand washing in an effort to keep themselves safe", explains Louise Carroll. "Gradually reducing these habits will ultimately reduce anxiety, but working with a therapist to support this process is recommended. A useful tip is to distinguish between irrational anxiety, which is rigidly threat-based, and appropriate concern, which is flexible and allows for more optimistic outcomes. CBT teaches us that we can manage our emotional state by balancing our thoughts to be more helpful and rational. Learning new ways to do so is a valuable first step."
If you are not currently seeing a therapist and your compulsive behaviours have been exacerbated, Rajnish Virk urges: "Try your best to only follow the recommended NHS precautions and not to increase OCD-related behaviours. Mindfulness is a great at-home strategy for calming anxious thoughts."
Self-care if you are self-isolating or working from home
With more of us working from home, we're having to quickly adapt to a new way of life. Mark Bailey recommends trying to maintain some normality, including:
- Get dressed for work as normal and don't let time blend
- Keep work boundaries – i.e. don't work from bed if you can help it
- Spread out conversations across the day if you can so you don't have long gaps on your own
And if you are self-isolating because you feel unwell? "Take every day as it comes", suggests Mark. "Feeling ill can be especially difficult if you are prone to anxiety. Remember there is a very high chance you will make a fast and full recovery. Most of us are social beings and we need interaction to be psychologically healthy. Facetime and Skype are frankly godsends in these times so use them – not just for work but for friends, acquaintances and family. Focus conversation on other things in life, not just coronavirus!"
"For those who are now working from home and fear they will miss the company of their colleagues, embracing a ‘positive filter’ will help," suggests Louise Caroll. "Seeing opportunities for more regular exercise or mindfulness, and planning to use any extra time in a fulfilling way."
Can we take any positives from the situation?
Amidst the panic and alarm, positive news stories can help us feel more connected. Across the world, we are seeing communities come together. Paying attention to the good in the world is worthwhile in times of crisis and is one of the best ways of managing overwhelming emotions.
"I make this point with sensitivity as to how serious this also is: there are positives in most situations - even if they are difficult to see", says Mark Bailey. "Some doctors had a standing ovation in the street in Spain which showed the gratitude people have. This can focus our attention on what really matters most in life. I think this will also show us how humans can come together and help each other in times of need. Just like in our own families, difficulties can often bring a legacy of harmony and kindness."