Photo: Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP
Neena*, a 34-year-old woman, has a history of anxiety and hypochondria—a health-centric anxiety disorder that results in an obsession over perceived threat of illness. She once had a breast cancer scare, and that heightened her anxiety. Ever since, she has lived with a constant fear of death, projecting the paranoia to her two kids as well. But when the coronavirus outbreak news broke, Neena found herself unwilling to come to terms with her husband’s travel plans. She also stopped her kids from going to school, and later, to the park as well. That’s because the news cycle overloaded with information on the novel coronavirus coupled with an explosion on our social media feeds on all things pandemic, triggered Neena’s hypochondriasis.
As the spread of COVID-19 continues, people are panic stocking toilet rolls, leading ‘Go corona’ chats at prayer meetings, googling ‘corona beer virus’, being made to listen to 15-second PSAs featuring a coughing person every time they make a call, and umm.. watching coronavirus porn. The first reported cases of the new coronavirus arose in late December but have since swelled to over 1,26,380 cases, and 4,630 fatalities. As we live a plot right out of a dystopian novel, people are flooding to the doctors at the slightest sign of a symptom.
But there’s something else that this virus is triggering that’s not as much in the news: people’s mental health.
In addition to the health scare of the illness, the highly contagious coronavirus is also acting as a major trigger for those, like Neena, who are living with hypochondria. For people who live with health anxiety, global health scares can affect them differently, and far more intensely than they would affect anyone else who does not live with this condition.
On speaking to mental health experts, how this outbreak is affecting people with hypochondria became very real. People diagnosed with health anxiety have often been called obsessed, and not been taken seriously. But with this outbreak which is making every person consider their health a little more than usual, one can only imagine the stress it is creating among people who are in a constant state of panic regarding their health. “Some of my clients have stopped going out, and are getting very paranoid,” says Seema Hingorrany, a clinical psychologist and author. “There is a lot of heightened paranoia among them leading to some obsessive compulsive behavioural patterns. Like, if they’re at a bank and someone sneezes, they would want to go and wash their hands. They’ve also been looking at a lot of things coming up on WhatsApp, and that adds to the situation that they’re in.”
Hingorrany spoke to us about a client she works with who is a 26-year-old man with hypochondria. He deals with a lot of anxiety and constantly fears that he’s going to get cancer or a brain disease. He’s scared to use washrooms, is afraid to shake hands, and claims that he can actually see droplets of virus. He’s aware that these thoughts are irrational and is working on his fears. But the constant churn of coronavirus news has brought back these fears for him very strongly.
Ipsa James, a psychotherapist in Delhi, adds that the outbreak is affecting people much worse because of the way in which the government is dealing with it. “It is causing a lot more panic,” she said. “People have started to hoard sanitisers and masks thinking that stores will run out. The lack of proactiveness from government agencies has also added to the stress and anxiety around the coronavirus, especially for those who have mental health conditions.”
Hingorrany works with her clients by giving them relaxation tips like meditation and teaching them exercises to contain their thoughts, and avoid their trigger points. When one is feeling triggered, it is extremely difficult to open up and talk about it without having a mental breakdown. In Neena’s case, she was able to work on it and finally get to a point where she could manage the anxieties, and became okay with sending her kids to school, but her husband's travel plans still trigger her anxiety with respect to the coronavirus
If you’re feeling like it’s very hard for you to manage your well-being with the coronavirus outbreak, please reach out and speak to someone—either a close friend or family member, or even a professional. It’s important to not ignore the signs, but it’s also necessary to rationalise our thoughts and try to relax so that we can all take care of ourselves. In the digital age, one can also reach out to many mental health professionals through a helpline or by scheduling a virtual appointment, especially in times like these when anxiety may become so crippling that one would want to avoid going to a public place.
We can’t avoid the news, and the countless WhatsApp forwards one receives in groups that bring their own conspiracy theories and misinformation, but we can all try to tell ourselves that everything we read, hear and watch is not always true. There will always be an element of uncertainty. But what’s helpful is to make sure you get your news from reliable sources, and not from those uncles on WhatsApp who spam every family group you’re in.
A friend who deals with anxiety almost ordered a very expensive bottle of cough syrup because of the constant panic around the virus. However, after taking some time off for herself, and avoiding social media stories, she was able to get her thoughts together and her panic in control.
So yes, while it’s important now more than ever to be following guidelines and washing our hands, it’s also necessary to see how far we go. Follow the cases, ensure your safety but make sure you don’t get swept up in mass panic.
What’s worked for me when it comes to following any news or social media stories on the coronavirus is to keep myself at a healthy distance. Weekdays are always busy, and coming back home to the news has only brought anxious trips to the bathroom to wash my hands more than I need to. On weekends, when the work pressure is low, I’m able to go through the news better without putting myself in mental stress.
Another way to handle your anxiety is saying ‘no’ to the people around you. You don’t have to discuss the news, and the new cases with people at work or at that family function if you don’t want to. Drawing boundaries is extremely important, because it gives us the space to avoid our trigger points. It may be hard, but nobody is more important than you—and there is no shame in expressing that you need space from these discussions.
Whether you’re struggling with OCD, generalised anxiety, or another mental illness that feels more intensified in this age of panic and misinformation, you’ll be able to get through this pandemic the same way you get through everything: taking it day by day.
*Name changed on request