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Infectious Diseases

Updated 24 March 2020

'Social connection remains so important': Psychologist shares tips on coping with coronavirus anxiety

Local clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, Vincenzo Sinisi, shares tips on managing anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic.

Let’s say it as it is: staring down an unfolding pandemic is turning out to be rather stressful. For some, this comes in waves of dread punctuated by periods of panic. Others enjoy a more even-keeled sense of stress, while an enviable few remain in total denial. (It won't last, however.) 

Whoever you are, following the following tips will help you remain or regain calm, and if we practice these collectively, they will help us remain stronger, healthier and happier.

Why am I so stressed? 

It’s not always apparent to us, but our social interactions, daily routines, and sense of a predictable future, play an enormous role in preserving our sense of stability and control.

Disrupting these can lead to people feeling sad, anxious, panicky, stressed out, worried, helpless, and threatened. When people feel threatened, they often react out of fear and suspicion.

They imagine worst-case scenarios and resort to irrational thinking, panic, conspiracy theories, xenophobia, racism, and widespread mistrust. These are all normal reactions to abnormal circumstances, but they aren’t constructive. Fortunately, you can take steps to maintain calm, promote connection, and stay safe.

Attend to your life 

  • Establish a daily routine and set time aside for family, hobbies, work, exercise, socialising, self-care, and relaxation. Aim to emulate your original routine. Proactively schedule video contacts with friends and relatives. 
  • Have a plan: This can help you feel more in control and ease your anxiety. List supplies, update your doctor’s details, work out a weekly schedule of chores. 
  • Uncertain times bring unexpected surprises: Be flexible and anticipate needing to adjust the routines and plans you put in place. 
  • Limit your digital consumption: Decide how much is enough to remain informed. Schedule it into your daily routine, preferably not before bedtime. 
  • Avoid unofficial media sources (including family) – they distribute fear-driven information. 
  • Schedule activities that promote calm, e.g. reading books, preparing meals, walking, gardening, building puzzles, playing board games – and taking deep breaths. 
  • Bring control to where it will be useful, e.g. organise your home.

Attend to your mind

  • Be forgiving. These suggestions aren’t all easy. Think of them as practice. Try them, if you struggle, and try harder next time.  
  • Reframe the experience to highlight choice. Rather than “I’m trapped at home and I can’t do a thing”, aim for "I’m staying home to help slow the spread and will take the opportunity to build my relationship with my children”. 
  • Acknowledge your feelings. Naming feelings can have a calming effect. Talk to your loved ones about your experience. Ask if they can relate. Consider journaling. 
  • When worried, ask: Can you control the thing you are worried about? If not, let it go. If yes, add it to your plan and bring your energy back to the present. 
  • Practise bringing yourself to the here and now. Each time you catch yourself predicting the future, come back to what’s happening right now in your life, where you are standing, at this moment. Apply this each time you imagine a worst-case scenario or react to news from other countries or contexts. 
  • If you struggle to remain in, or come back to the present, consider stimulating each of your five senses. Take a hot a bath with essential oils, attentively listen to music, watch birds, ask for a massage. Focus on these senses. 
  • Practise acceptance. Deadlines won’t be met. Plans will be postponed. Life will go on.

Attend to your relationships 

  • Social connection remains so important — plan to connect with friends and family. Use the opportunity to reconnect with those you haven’t seen for a while. Video chat offers an easy way to bring people back together from all over. 
  • If you are at home with your family, prioritise time for loving and affectionate connection. 
  • Tell your partner that short bursts of catastrophising are allowed, but never both parties at once. Take turns to talk each other back to the rational present. 
  • If you and your partner are "at war", agree to a truce. You can always continue fighting later.

Attend to your health 

  • Look after your body. Eat well, sleep well, exercise and stretch. There are countless apps that can help you do this even indoors. 
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. I know it's difficult, but your sanity and immunity are a good reason.

What if I need help with my mental health? 

Many people struggle with mental health issues during their lifetime. If your emotions and thoughts interfere with your ability to live an ordinary life, consider speaking with a mental health professional. 

In response to the pandemic, many mental health professionals now consult via online video conferencing (teletherapy). Therapy Route, for example, is a South African directory site that allows visitors to search for mental health professionals who consult online.

It is best to establish a therapeutic relationship with a therapist before symptoms become too overwhelming. Crisis lines, helplines and listening lines also provide an important service to people feeling isolated, overwhelmed with anxiety, or depression, or who may want to harm themselves. 

Vincenzo Sinisi is a qualified clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, and group analyst in private practice in Cape Town. 

You can contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group (SADAG) on 0800 21 22 23 (toll-free number).

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READ | How to keep coronavirus anxiety at bay

Image: Enzo Sinisi/Therapy Route