“I am 27, and was diagnosed with OCD when I was 14. It started with a fear of germs and the idea that if I didn’t check things a certain number of times, all my family would die. So with the Coronavirus in the news all the time, I am finding it really hard to control my anxiety. Actually I feel like I just can’t, I am so anxious all the time I feel sick. I went out the other day and then had what I think was the start of a panic attack, which I have not had before, and had to go home again. We all have to stay home now, but that does not make me feel any better or less worried about my family. What should I do?” Ali, Stockwell
These are very strange and difficult days for all of us, but particularly for people with anxiety. As a psychotherapist, I often talk to people about the need to be able to hold uncertainty. And this time of the Coronavirus is like a massive global exercise in holding uncertainty.
A lot of your pre-existing anxiety is based on the expectation that something bad will happen and Covid-19 is that on a huge scale. So it makes sense that a time like this, you feel as if your anxieties have been blown up and amplified to a very uncomfortable level. Everybody is in a situation in which they feel things are racing out of control and this is bound to be very triggering for you.
You mentioned that your OCD started when you were around 14, and so it is possible that the current health crisis has particular resonance for you because, in a way, Covid19 has returned us all to a form of childhood or early adolescence. What I mean is that the biggest single difference between child life and adult life is that as children we are told what do and as adults we have to work it out for ourselves. The government taking control of our lives in this unprecedented way– telling us where we can and can’t go, and to wash our hands all the time — is infantilising. And it returns you, in a way, to that anxious state of internal conflict in which the child part of you wants to do what you are told, and the emerging adult parts feels angry and that it has no control.
However, it all being understandable doesn’t really help you at this moment. So, what can you do to try to turn down or tune out your anxiety?
One thing you can helpfully do is to control your intake of news about it. Constantly checking news feeds, social media or listening to bulletins can be what leads your anxious thoughts to spiral out of control. So: stick to trusted sources; decide on the specific times each day you will check in with the latest news; and limit yourself to one or two news bulletins a day.
Another is to increase your social connectedness, while observing all the social distancing guidelines, so download HouseParty or Zoom and have check-ins and chats with your loved ones. Again it would be helpful to schedule this so that at certain o’clock, you will be able to see your family, check how they are, and share what’s going on with you .
As psychotherapists, we often tell our clients that, while they have come to us for some help, they actually know the answers themselves. They just need to use the space we offer to reflect and think together so they can work out and bring to awareness what they know they need to do to effect change. And I think this is true of you. You have come to me for some help now, but it sounds as though over the last 13 years you have learned to quite successfully manage your anxiety. So you need to check back in with the techniques you find helpful — breathing, meditation, exercise, talking to people, journal writing and adapt them to the world we are now temporarily living in.