I would like to introduce you to (or remind you of) a very simple equation about anxiety:
the risk of something bad happening + the consequences vs ability to cope
Let’s use this equation to consider our responses to COVID-19. Initially we were bombarded with news items about China, people in face masks, on hospital beds, a country eventually going into lockdown. We were told that this was the result of a deadly disease and that there was no vaccination for it. We watched as it moved from China to other areas of the Asia Pacific and we held our collective breath as it landed in the UK.
Our perception of the risk of something bad happening (I/we could get COVID-19) had gradually been increasing as had our sense of the consequences (I/we could die/be locked-down) and our ability to cope with this was being tested. NOTHING WAS BEING DONE.
So, some of us decided to take matters into our own hands. We bought enough non-perishable supplies for a lockdown, we bought hand sanitisers, soap, cleaning products. We washed our hands a hundred times a day and we stopped shaking hands with anyone. The disease was still spreading. The news showed people IN THIS COUNTRY dying. We saw pictures of people on respirators. We wanted the government to DO MORE.
Those of us who had been secure with our ability to cope had been left behind at this point. Our risk of something bad happening was different. We saw pictures of empty shelves. There were no vegetables or bread, no pasta, rice, tomatoes. No soap, hand sanitiser. We were being put at risk by these crazy people who had cleared the shelves. So our anxiety went up because the consequences of their actions meant that we no longer had the means to simply go about our normal lives, taking the precautions advised by the government.
Over the course of a week or so, with people from all sectors and walks of life screaming at the government to DO SOMETHING – the perception of our risk of something bad happening was increasing with every news bulletin showing death rates increasing – so the government closed the shops and told us to close our doors and stay home. Well, almost. They left a SMALL chink. We could go out for exercise and food and we could go to work or visit vulnerable people.
For some, that SMALL chink allowed us to breathe. We could cope better. We had some control. We had assessed the risk as no greater than flu. We took precautions in line with guidelines (although we still couldn’t get hand sanitiser) and we were able to eat again. We were in good health. In our worlds, the risk of something bad happening was low and the consequences minimal (the evidence is starting to show that over 50% of people with COVID-19 are actually asymptomatic). We assessed our ability to cope with both the virus and the lockdown as reasonably good.
For some however that SMALL chink created and continues to create anxiety. It increases the risk of something bad happening. We need to stop people going out. They need to #StayHome and #SupportOurNHS. These people are spreading this virus around. Don’t they realise they are putting all of us at risk? What sort of people are they? They are criminals. They should be arrested. The perception of the illness was being fuelled by the pictures on TV, the daily death rates going up, people on social media naming and shaming those who were, in their opinion creating problems for others. The consequences of their actions are deadly. Our ability to cope was being severely limited by their irresponsible actions.
While the above are broad brushstrokes of behaviour, they should be familiar to us. We are all responding in our own way. Even where we have the same facts, our different lives mean we have different priorities, different concerns and different perceptions. There is no one way which is right and no one way which is wrong. We are all dealing with the pandemic, the facts and the advice in our own way. We each interpret differently and take our own stance.
It is really really important to understand that we are each trying to manage our own anxieties. While we might disagree with how some people are behaving, it is how they need to manage their own situation. We don’t walk in others’ shoes. While you disagree with their actions, don’t condemn or vilify the person. They don’t deserve it.
Remember also that what reduces anxiety for one person spikes it for another. You might now have switched off the news or reduced your use of social media. You may have formed a wellness group, you may be doing zoom chats with your friends. You might be shopping once a week. Notice what brings your mood up and your anxiety down. Do more of this. Notice what drives your mood lower and you anxiety higher. Do less of it. Hook into the things that work for you. Maybe reading a book, playing games with the kids, baking, cycling, running.
Having seen some of my clients, and my friends and family for that matter, go into meltdown over the last few weeks, it is particularly important for me to stress the need for you to look after your mental health. When you are sitting in the house with only your own thoughts and they keep spinning around in your head to the point of distress and panic and you know that a walk outside in the fresh air will instantly lift your mood and take your mind away from all the turmoil you are feeling inside then go for a walk! Whether you have had your one walk a day or not, go outside! We all have different living circumstances. We may be stuck indoors with the kids or with a partner we are not getting on with. It’s trying to find a way through it that works for you. When you really can’t cope, try not to limit your options too much. And if you feel suicidal then call the emergency services on 999 or the Samaritans on 116 123.
Your mental health is as important as your physical health. We all need to allow flexibility and common-sense. None of us wants anyone to die through our actions. But we cannot afford to be blindly following a “one size fits all” approach. Be responsible to others but also be responsible to yourself and your families. Take precautions with your physical health but equally look after your own and each other’s mental health. Think before you criticise someone. Don’t assume they have it wrong and you have it right.
Keep safe. Keep sane.
Colin Matthews C.Psychol. AFBPsP
For further information on managing COVID-19 anxiety see: