COVID-19 – Protecting our mental health

Ten simple ways to promote wellbeing.

Location: UK
Published: Friday 27 March 2020
Blog Article Illustration
A portrait of Rajnish Attavar smiling Dr Attavar

As a doctor working in the field of psychiatry these differences between people interest me. Why is it that some are highly anxious and consumed by this for some weeks?

They talk of little else other than their concerns about the infamous virus, with some individuals even having resorted to hoarding. Whereas others (who objectively fall into a well-publicised high-risk category) remain entirely unconcerned making no significant adjustments to their lifestyles. This probes a question. What should we be doing?

There are some groups who we may expect to be more vulnerable to health anxiety at this time.

What is health anxiety? Health anxiety is a disorder in which people become very concerned they have serious medical conditions. Much time is spent searching for, and reading, information about the condition they are concerned about.

Also, symptoms that would be interpreted as normal bodily sensations by many people may be thought of by someone with health anxiety as ‘proof’ those they now have the condition they were concerned about.

There are some groups of individuals who may be expected to suffer from higher levels of health anxiety. For example, those with pre-existing anxiety disorders and people who live alone so may have less social contact during this time of social distancing, alongside those who have received much of their information from sources such as social media. Some of this information may be inherently inaccurate and sensationalist.

There are also those who maintain that COVID-19 is not more of a risk to individuals than common flu. This may be to do with a lack of immediacy; if they and all their friends and family are well then it could feel less relevant.

Furthermore, research done by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert suggests people have a greater reaction to threats caused directly by individuals, as opposed to natural causes, such as extreme weather or illness.

In terms of an optimal approach, this is likely to involve acknowledging the risk and further following the guidance being released. This approach is less likely to involve high levels of anxiety which may result in deterioration of a person’s mental health, or in an individual taking unnecessary risks. Another consideration is maintaining good mental health.

Here are 10 simple things you can do to promote wellbeing:

  • It may be wise to limit the amount of time per day individuals spend reading about COVID-19, to try to mitigate the effects of health anxiety
  • If you find you frequently ask others for reassurance regarding your health, or a condition you have concerns around; consider limiting the amount of time you discuss this topic with others. Instead using the time spent talking to friends/family to discuss a variety of topics
  • Thinking of others… Shifting people’s concerns from their own and instead think of others and whether they can help them in any way is likely to have beneficial effects on our own mental health
  • At points in the day when anxiety about your health becomes high, try to distract yourself with other enjoyable activities
  • Self-help books, many of these are based on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy and many people do find them helpful
  • If anxiety has become a problem for someone it may be very hard for them to be able to relax, but regularly practising relaxation techniques (not just at times of crisis) can help. There are self-help books that can teach these, and there are professionals who can assist
  • Thinking if there are any new hobbies or jobs that they may wish to try
  • Regular exercise. This can be done through walking in a local park (while maintaining the advised 2m separation between people), or even with the use of a home-fitness DVD
  • You can download free anxiety management tools. Living Life to the Full is a free online life skills course
  • Eat a well-balanced, healthy diet and avoid excessive alcohol as this can worsen conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Some useful resources for those struggling with their mental health:

Charlotte Nicoll is a core trainee 1 trainee on the Oxford Training Programme, working in community learning disabilities.

Rajnish Attavar is a consultant psychiatrist and local negotiating chair in the Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust.