Doctor’s note: Coronavirus and your mental health

The world is a stressful place right now. The coronavirus pandemic has got people panic-buying, desperately scrolling social media platforms for the latest information and worrying about conspiracy theories. It is a lot to take in.

Around 264 million people around the world suffer from an anxiety disorder, with it being more common in women than in men. The World Health Organization (WHO) also lists obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in its top 10 most disabling conditions as measured by lost income and decreased quality of life.

My clinics are filling up with patients whose mental health has been affected by this constant bombardment of information about coronavirus and worse, uncertainty.

They are understandably worried about some of the things they are hearing about coronavirus. Some of the bogus rumours and “advice” I have heard include: drinking water every 15 minutes to avoid contracting the virus and the idea that taking a deep breath will help you decide if the virus has damaged your lungs.

People who have had no prior history of mental health issues are suddenly having trouble sleeping, concentrating and getting on with their normal day-to-day lives. Those with a prior history of anxiety or OCD have found their symptoms have been exacerbated by the news of COVID-19.

I have had to adjust some of my patients’ anxiety medication during this difficult time.

Is the general public right to react with such anxiety to the increasingly alarming news about the spread of COVID-19? The answer, as with many things, is yes but in moderation.

Now, more than ever, we need to keep our mental health in as good a condition as possible.

One problem is the rate at which news about coronavirus is coming out and how quickly the information is changing.

But worse is the amount of “fake news” out there and how difficult it is to find reliable sources of information. It is human to feel a need to be on top of the latest piece of guidance; nobody wants to risk contracting the disease.

The uncertainty and feeling of a lack of control are what underpins most people’s anxiety. You are waiting for something to happen and that in itself feeds further anxiety.

Another problem is that the new protocols around washing hands and not touching our faces, among other things, may well be making some people with OCD more unwell.

People with OCD often already exhibit repetitive cleaning behaviours, such as cleaning door handles, kitchens and bathrooms. This may not sound too bad, but when it stops them from doing anything else it becomes a significant problem in their lives.

If these people are now being told that they must wash their hands in a certain way every two hours, or clean surfaces regularly, it may cause their symptoms to spiral and they, too, then feel they have lost control.

So what steps can we take to reduce the chance of COVID-19 having a detrimental effect on our mental health?

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