The coronavirus pandemic has rightfully caused fear in the general population. But it can be a nightmare for people who have an underlying anxiety disorder. People with anxiety already have racing thoughts, excessive worry, fear, feeling of impending doom, and insomnia. Of course, their anxiety will be heightened.
We’ve already seen panic in large numbers of people. We’ve seen video of shoppers coming to blows over toilet paper. They’re also hoarding large quantities of hand sanitizers and surgical masks, leaving others without means to protect themselves from a potentially deadly disease.
Some say these people are selfish and greedy. But I would say that this is a human reaction rooted in a fight or flight response. The hoarders have an instinct for self-preservation. When faced with stress and worry, there are two typical responses. One is to ramp up anxiety into a panic for survival. The other is to decrease anxiety by minimizing or denying in order to avoid being overwhelmed by fear.
Panic buying often occurs in anticipation of a disaster such as a hurricane or blizzard. These goods are purchased to offset a fear for our safety. Panic buying makes people feel in control; they are combatting the enemy and taking action to survive. Herd mentality tells us that if others are stocking up on toilet paper, maybe we should too. We don’t want to be left empty handed if in fact, toilet paper makes the difference between those who survive and those who perish. It’s a natural response to a stressful experience.
The coronavirus is a mystery. We don’t know how long it will paralyze us or how many lives will be lost. However, we are most likely faced with long term stress rather than acute stress. This is more a marathon than a sprint. Let’s adjust our expectations and calm ourselves.
There are many tools designed to increase coping. Practice relaxation and mindfulness, stay connected to your social network, make healthy food choices and get plenty of rest, and get outside for fresh air and walks if permitted. This pandemic is controlled if we all cover our coughs, wash our hands, and keep a distance from others, no matter how difficult these tasks are. If we don’t, then the pandemic will spread.
Don’t hesitate to seek counseling if needed. Most health insurers have stepped up to allow reimbursement for video or phone counseling. Many therapists, like myself, are offering free or low cost services. Few people have been faced with this type of disaster. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.