The pandemic has sparked a global fear so intense that something as simple as grocery shopping feels like a life-threatening risk.
Many people think they are experiencing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) symptoms when they have none.
Aya Anan currently works with the American International School in Jeddah. She is a Saudi licensed assistant psychologist with a master’s degree in mental health. She explained the effect of the mind on the body in a state of fear.
“In my opinion, the best way to view the relationship between mental and physical health is as an ecosystem. Rather than focus on any one element, we must care for it as a whole because all the different elements tie into one another. A small change may lead to a ripple effect that could impact the environment as a whole,” she said.
In psychology, she said, stress can be defined as the feeling of emotional strain and pressure. It affects how a person thinks, feels, acts and relates to others — and it produces myriad negative health effects.
“Most people feel an increase in heart rate, while some feel a tightness in their stomach. Studies have shown that digestion is inhibited during moments of stress, which may affect the health of the digestive system and cause ulcers,” she said.
“Adrenaline released during a stress response may cause ulcers, exhaustion and muscle soreness. Stress can also affect the immune system by increasing blood pressure.”
Anan said that accepting our emotions and realizing that fear and anxiety are normal responses are healthy steps in coping with a stressful situation.
“Allow yourself to sit with your feelings and assess which reactions benefit you and which can hinder you.”
According to Anan, fear and anxiousness are survival mechanisms that are not always negative. They only pose an issue if they control our lives or hinder us from achieving our goals.
She explained that a great way to disengage from the fear response is to combat that fear with facts and distinguish between the things we can control or change and those we cannot.
“Be aware of the necessary precautions. Wear a mask and gloves when going out in public, keep the proper distance from others, wash your hands. And remind yourself you can recover from the disease and that catching it does not mean that you will have it for life,” Anan said.
Majed Khattab, a senior psychiatry resident at the Saudi Commission for Health Specialties, said that the relationship between mind and body is reciprocal — the state of mind affects the physical body as much as the body affects the mind.
“Fear is a normal emotion that is sometimes beneficial in preparing the body to react in an appropriate way,” he told Arab News. “But what has a clear negative impact on us is exaggerated fear, which is usually the result of a mismatch between the anticipated future and its expected threat.”
A state of continuous fear activates the fight-or-flight response in the human body, which places high level of stress on the body, exhausting it in different ways, including weakening the immune system and thus making us more vulnerable to illness.
He added that sometimes fear leads people to misinterpret perceptions of physical health.
“That may lead us to wrongly assume we have an illness or may make us exaggerate the severity of any ongoing condition.”
Khattab said it is important to realize that the goal is not to eliminate fear but rather to know how to manage it by having a better understanding of the threat causing it.
“In the case of the COVID-19 outbreaks, a proper understanding of the virus from reliable sources is key to reducing fear and implementing the necessary behaviors to avoid spreading the virus,” said Khattab.
He explained that the psychological state of a patient can affect how he or she experiences symptoms and that a calm and resilient state of mind usually facilitates recovery from illness.
“It’s essential for a COVID-19 patient to talk openly with his or her physician to have a solid expectation about the course of illness,” he said, adding: ”Knowing that the majority of patients make a full recovery and that even the minority who may develop complications recover as well is quite reassuring.”
The significant effect of psychological factors on the course of illnesses is well established in the medical field.
“The elderly and other high-risk groups face a more difficult challenge in managing the stress of falling ill with COVID-19, which could negatively impact recovery. That’s why it’s important to address their stress and manage it properly,” Khattab said.