How to stop your coronavirus anxiety from spiralling out of control

How to stop your coronavirus anxiety from spiralling out of control


Written by Lauren Geall

Are you struggling to keep your anxiety about the coronavirus outbreak under control? Here’s how to stop catastrophising and avoid causing yourself unnecessary panic.

It’s 3.25 in the afternoon. My mum, a teaching assistant at a local primary school, should have left work 15 minutes ago, but she’s not answering my calls.

Then, I remember: she has to walk home along a busy road. What are the chances that a car veered off the road and hit her? What if she’s been injured and can’t contact me? I’m left with the image of her phone ringing pointlessly in the middle of the road, metres away from the team of paramedics tending to my mum’s injury. I feel my chest contract with fear.

But at 3.27pm, surprise surprise, my phone lights up with a picture of my mum’s face as she calls me back. One of the kids at school lost their hairband and she’d been helping them look for it. The familiar feeling of shame and embarrassment fills my chest: I’ve been catastrophising again.

For anyone who deals with anxiety on a regular basis, this experience is probably a pretty familiar one. The art of catastrophising is one that those of us who struggle with anxiety have mastered – without fail, our minds go to the worst case scenario, flooding our brain with terrifying images which cause our anxiety levels to skyrocket. 

But in a situation like the current coronavirus outbreak, it’s not just people who deal with anxiety that are likely to find themselves catastrophising. Thanks to the influx of news alerts, social media notifications and daily updates on the spread of the virus, people across the world are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety, no matter what their mental health looks like on a “normal” day. When we’re presented with a threat like the one we’re dealing with at the moment, it’s only natural to imagine the worst case scenario – but it’s when we find ourselves stuck worrying about it when it starts to become a problem.

“Catastrophising happens when we overestimate the likelihood that our current situation will end in catastrophe, and underestimate our ability to cope,” explains Dr Martina Paglia, clinical and counselling psychologist and clinical director of The International Psychology Clinic. “People who catastrophise are likely to spend time thinking about the worst case scenario – and are convinced that this is what is actually going to happen.”

Of course, catastrophising about the coronavirus is a bit different from the regular catastrophising you might do in response to a big presentation or family worry. The thing with the whole coronavirus situation is that there is an actual, real life threat here – being worried, in this situation, is actually how we should be feeling. But it’s when that worry becomes a persistent sense of anxiety, and we feel ourselves dwelling upon the worst case scenario (and obsessing about it happening) that it’s time we tackled the problem.

Recognising that we’re catastrophising is the first step towards dealing with it. Catastrophic thinking is, in CBT terms, a “cognitive distortion” – so it’s important that we recognise when our thinking has shifted from a healthy pattern to an unhealthy one.

“The best way to recognise if you’re catastrophising to ask yourself is there any other outcomes that are possible in the situation,” Dr Paglia explains. “Identify what the catastrophe is and what the best case scenario is, and then think about a point in the middle. Statistics tell us that this is most likely to happen.”

Once you’ve identified that you’re catastrophising – and reminded yourself that the worst case scenario is just one of a number of different possible outcomes – it’s time to try and calm your anxiety to ensure it doesn’t spiral out of control. 

As the current situation is different to a “normal” one we might encounter, Dr Paglia recommends taking some time to calm ourselves down and remind ourselves that the situation is out of our control. Surprisingly, she says, telling ourselves that we’re powerless – and accepting that we’re unable to control the situation we find ourselves in – is actually a great way to reduce our anxiety levels.

“The first thing we can do to calm ourselves down is pause and remind ourselves that there is nothing we can do to control things,” she explains. “A lot of people have a controlling tendency – they need to plan things ahead and keep things in a certain order – so it’s very important for them to take the time to accept that they have no control about what’s going on. 

“In this way, acceptance is key in helping people to take a more mindful stance about what they can do, so they can accept that this is the situation, and they can only cope with whatever is going on at the time. The power of acceptance is that it can stop people from worrying, because if you’re able to pause and think that there is nothing in your power and it’s out of your control, you will slowly be able to think about and approach the situation in a different light.”

Approaching a situation mindfully is a great way to reduce anxiety levels because it helps you to see the situation for what it actually is – not what your mind is imagining it to be. When we feel anxious, it’s easy to get stuck in our thoughts and live vicariously through the scary situations we imagine in our mind, rather than dealing with the tangible things in front of us. 

In this way, grounding techniques, breath work and mindfulness meditations can all help us to stop our anxious thoughts from spiralling out of control because they help us to bring our attention back to the present moment.

“When we worry our mind fluctuates between the past and the future and we really struggle to be in the present moment,” Dr Paglia explains. “A good way to help us be in the present moment is to use attention training and grounding techniques; one way to do this is to ask people to say what they can see, hear, taste, feel and smell, using their five senses to ground themselves where they are in the here and now.”

Dr Paglia also recommends the use of breathing techniques to help bring down and control our adrenaline levels, which tend to skyrocket when our anxious thoughts begin to spiral.

“Catastrophic thinking creates anxiety because our brain is not able to distinguish between real danger and the situations that we create in our mind,” she says. “From a bodily perspective, the response to our catastrophic thoughts is the same as the fear response we have whenever we are in a real situation of danger – like if there is a tiger in the room, for example. The adrenaline levels come up and the body is preparing itself to run very quickly. But of course the danger is one that you have created in your mind so there is nothing you need to run away from. So therefore it is really important to help people to regain control of their hormone levels – in particular adrenaline – and breathing techniques are particularly helpful.”

Alongside these immediate, present moment actions, we can also take a more preventative approach to ensure that our anxiety doesn’t get out of control. According to Dr Paglia, making sure we eat healthy, exercise regularly and get enough sleep helps us to build a stable foundation, from which we can introduce a daily self-care routine to maintain our mental health.

She adds that, in the case your anxiety becomes unmanageable, it’s a good idea to reach out for support – whether that’s from a friend or family member or from a trained professional who can offer CBT to help you deal with what you’re going through.

“It’s important to reach out to your support network to speak with someone who is not going to judge you or criticise you but is going to reassure you,” she says. “In this situation it’s even more important to keep in touch with others because lots of people are going to be in self-isolation – it’s important we stay connected.”

Images: Getty/Unsplash

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