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Anxiety on rise due to coronavirus,

Anxiety on rise due to coronavirus, say mental health charities
People with existing issues, including OCD, are particularly vulnerable

Jessica Murray and Harriet Sherwood [Fri 13 Mar 2020]

The coronavirus epidemic is causing increased stress and anxiety, particularly people with existing mental health problems, practitioners and campaigners have said.

Reactions to the crisis can include feeling overwhelmed, fearful, sad, angry and helpless, according to experts. Some people may have difficulty sleeping or concentrating. Fear of contact with others, travelling on public transport or going into public spaces may increase, and some people will have physical symptoms, such as an increased heart rate or upset stomach.

The World Health Organization has acknowledged that the crisis is generating stress, and has advised people to avoid watching, reading or listening to news that causes feelings of anxiety or distress.

Stephen Buckley, of the mental health charity Mind, said: “We know that the coronavirus and its impact are causing stress and worry for many people. If you already have a mental health problem, it’s possible that the worries of coronavirus may be affecting how you’re coping.”

How can I protect myself from the coronavirus outbreak?

Quarantine or self-isolation is likely to have a negative impact on mental wellbeing. A review of the psychological impact of quarantine published in the Lancet in February said:

“Separation from loved ones, the loss of freedom, uncertainty over disease status, and boredom can, on occasion, create dramatic effects. Suicide has been reported, substantial anger generated, and lawsuits brought following the imposition of quarantine in previous outbreaks.

“The potential benefits of mandatory mass quarantine need to be weighed carefully against the possible psychological costs.”

According to Kathryn Kinmond, a psychotherapist in Staffordshire and a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, uncertainty is a key driver of anxiety. “Coronavirus gives rise to lots of uncertainty, and this has particular resonance with people who suffer from anxiety.” Clients were “inevitably” raising concerns about the coronavirus in therapy sessions, she said.

Ashley Fulwood, of OCD UK, said the charity had received an increase in calls and emails from people with obsessive compulsive disorder who were developing a new fixation on the coronavirus.

Around a quarter of people with OCD experience compulsive cleaning, such as handwashing over a fear of contamination, according to Fulwood.

“I’m seeing for some of those people their OCD is intensifying, there is lots of avoidance going on and lots more washing than is recommended by the government – for some people their OCD is being triggered to the point where they’re washing for 20 minutes or longer,” he said.

Emily Burke, an 18-year-old student in Hertfordshire, has had OCD for four years and said she was finding the extensive media coverage and social media posts difficult to deal with.

“I’ve worked hard on it and I don’t wash my hands as much as I used to, so it’s really triggering. It’s not even like I can just turn off social media because it’s everywhere, everyone is saying: ‘Have you washed your hands?’” she said.

Panic attacks may also be a response to the coronavirus outbreak, according to David Crepaz-Keay, of the Mental Health Foundation.

“One of the things that leads to panic attacks is excessive worrying for unsubstantiated reasons,” he said. “There are a relatively small number of people in this country affected by coronavirus … We shouldn’t allow that anxiety to cause us more problems than it warrants at the moment.”

Tom Kinniburgh, a 33-year-old game designer in London, started experiencing panic attacks after a number of fellow travellers began feeling ill on their return flight from a skiing trip in Val d’Isere, near northern Italy.

“I started feeling a bit ill and then I’d see news articles or reports about the virus spreading and self-isolation, and I’d get this huge wave of fear,” he said. “It felt like it made me have a cough, and then it sort of settled in my stomach and made my heart palpitate and essentially made me not be able to breathe.”

He said he started to worry he had contracted the virus, but the symptoms quickly disappeared and after talking to a friend who is a doctor, he realised he was experiencing panic attacks.

“They lasted up to 30 minutes, and they were really quite debilitating, with real shortness of breath, tingling and loss of eyesight in some regard.”

Sarah, from Gateshead, who did not want her surname published, said she had increased her dosage of anti-anxiety medication.

“Some of the things that politicians say, and also then some of the reporting of it … can create that initial anxiety response,” she said.

Rosie Weatherley of Mind said mental health services were making plans to provide continued treatment in the case of restrictions on movement and the closure of workplaces.

“A lot of people are reliant on interaction with therapists, but some of that can be done by phone or online. People with mental health issues need to ensure their medication supplies are sufficient for any periods of self-isolation,” she said.

Mind’s advice to people who have behavioural problems about hygiene includes avoiding repeatedly reading the same advice, asking other people not to keep reminding them to wash their hands, setting time limits on handwashing, and using breathing exercises.


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