Exactly how to cope with the anxiety and stress around coronavirus.

The persistent message from authorities in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic is a simple one: don’t panic. The number of cases in Australia is small, the overwhelming majority of patients make a full recovery within a couple of weeks, and the medical and scientific community is following strict protocols to contain the virus.

But in the face of rolling news coverage, sensational headlines and updates about human-to-human transmission, it’s understandable that many people are experiencing stress and overwhelm.

Watch: The World Health Organisation’s tips for protecting yourself from COVID-19.

Video by World Health Organisation

For those with anxiety disorders, in particular, reports around COVID-19 can trigger symptoms that make managing an already-difficult condition that much harder.

So what is it about this particular situation that creates such anxiety? And what are some practical, everyday strategies people can use to deal with it?

To find out, we spoke to Ros Knight, a practising clinical and counselling psychologist and the president of the Australian Psychological Society.

The one thing you can control.

While most people are likely to be concerned about COVID-19, for people with anxiety disorders, that worry can become persistent and intrusive.

“Anxiety is definitely characterised by a fear of being out of control, and therefore a tendency to worry and ruminate and focus on a particular issue,” Ros Knight said.

Knight noted that the search for that control will manifest differently in different people, depending on the form of anxiety they live with. For some, it might be spending much of the day consuming news stories, updates and social media posts. For others, it might mean fixation on possible symptoms.

“Once you start worrying a lot, start working yourself up a lot, it can be hard to sleep, it can be hard to concentrate, you can become irritable, and just doing the basic things in life can start to become difficult,” Knight said.

Listen: An infectious disease specialist answers your 20 most pressing questions about COVID-19. (Post continues below.)


If COVID-19 is impacting your day-to-day life, Knight encourages you to remember that there is only one thing you can actually control about the situation: yourself.

“Anxiety is not a bad thing; it’s a normal response,” she said. “Though it really is how we respond to feeling anxious that is important (rather than trying to fix COVID-19, which for most of us is way outside the scope).”

Here are some of the strategies you can employ every day to respond in a way that protects your mental health.

Get facts from reputable sources.

“The biggest way to manage anxiety is to be quite clear in your head what the facts are and what the risks really are. And then to be aware of what you can do,” Knight said.

“So if the Government is saying, ‘don’t panic; wash your hands; don’t kiss and cuddle and shake hands with everybody’, then we should follow those steps.

“But beyond that, they’re saying that, at the moment, we have no reason to assume we’re at risk. So those sort of facts are really useful.”

Up-to-date information and advisories are available via the World Health Organisation, Australian Department of Health and state health department websites.

Limit your media/social media consumption.

When it comes to media and social media, it’s important to consume them without getting caught up in anything that catastrophises the situation.

“Clearly, the story is evolving constantly,” Knight said. “So, it’s about making sure that you touch base a couple of times, but then you make a decision to switch that off. And you make a decision not to talk about it with absolutely everybody you run into.”

Maintain your routine.

Knight stresses that it’s important to maintain your normal routine as much as possible.

“Still go to work, still do the things you like to do, but just be mindful that there are a few minor restrictions on how we behave at the moment,” she said.

“If that’s proving difficult then, of course, calm yourself down using your usual calming strategies: whether that’s relaxation, going for a run, talking to friends, watching a funny movie, reading a book — those things that remind us that life is good and that we don’t need to be on the alert.”

If you think you may be experiencing anxiety or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you’re based in Australia, immediate support is available through Lifeline (13 11 14) and beyondblue (1300 22 4636).

Feature image: Getty.

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