Masking and unmasking Coronavirus anxiety

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“Surely they must know that none of these tricks actually work….’Keep Calm and Carry On’. Dear oh dear. I still don’t know how psychologists get away with it.” This was Matthew Hyland commenting on an article in The Conversation, a site for academics and researchers, about how to stop the anxiety about coronavirus spiralling out of control.

There has possibly never been so many psychologists and mental health ‘experts’ in the media offering their tips on how to deal with our anxieties about the pandemic. Recently the royals added their support to Public Health England’s advice.

But what do all these tips and tricks amount to? Should we agree with Matthew Hyland?

Advice includes not watching too much news, staying connected, talking about your worries, exercise, purposeful regular breathing, relaxation, doing something you enjoy, focusing on a hobby or learning something new, eating well, not relying on drugs and alcohol, keeping a regular routine and sleeping pattern.

If you have a grandmother, ask her if this is like teaching her to suck eggs. However, while all these ideas might seem like just common sense to her, she might not be so alert to other aspects of the messages. One of these is frequent references to mental health disorders and the possibility that these could be triggered or exacerbated. Linked to this are suggestions you might need to seek help with your anxieties from the experts. Perhaps, the mental health lobby, like other professions, are not likely to miss an opportunity to signpost you to their ‘evidence-based’ services.

One further, and more fundamental, issue is that the messages tend to be from a weak psychological position. (I have written about this elsewhere on thinkingasaction.com.) The weak psychological model assumes anxiety is caused by the situations and circumstances of our lives. It treats us as if we are passive sponges soaking up the stresses in our lives, and that the best we can do is learn some tricks and techniques to ‘cope’ with the difficulties.

An alternative is to see ourselves as primarily sense makers. From this more active psychological perspective, a major aim for us is to work out how things will be for us; to predict what might come to pass and to work out how we feel about that, i.e., what we want and don’t want. This is the essence of anxiety; we feel anxious when we predict something might happen, and at the same time we have chosen that we don’t want it to happen.

This is, of course, more common sense; for centuries Buddhism has linked suffering with desire. However, while it may in a sense be available to common sense it is at the same time quite uncommon and almost absent from many narratives about mental health.

The point about predicting and not wanting is that these are both psychological acts. We perform them in the privacy of our thoughts, the forum internum of human rights theory. If we understand this, we gain more awareness of, and influence over our thoughts. By doing this we develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and a greater degree of self-reliance.

How can this help us with our concerns with the coronavirus pandemic? Before we answer this, it is important to remember that life is full of many risks. Various systems have been developed to deal with these and many of us face them without excessive anxiety.  

One such risk is driving.  When cars first appeared on our roads, like coronavirus, there was a lot of fear and anxiety about them. Very little was known about the risks involved. Faced with such uncertainty many could imagine all sorts of dire consequences. For a time in the UK a man would walk in front of any car waving a red flag, and there had to be two mechanics with the car. Initially a speed limit of 2 mph was imposed. In 1896 this was raised to 14 mph, about the same speed as a horse. Since then cars have become safer with many safety features. Drivers are now prepared rigorously to deal with the perils of driving.

When we first learn to drive many of us will be quite anxious. Like many I started in a car park, the one at the local B&Q. It was a strange sensation making this machine move, barely feeling in control. There seemed to be too much to be aware of; clutch, accelerator, brakes, steering wheel, mirrors. With practice those things became manageable. Then we take the next big step of venturing onto the road. One’s attention now moves on to speed, road position, indicators, mirrors, other cars, pedestrians etc. With more practice this also becomes second nature.  In time one can drive a familiar journey without being consciously aware of the route. All the behaviours that go towards safe driving have become habit and occur automatically. Clearly there are still risks in driving. In 2010 the United Nations launched the Decade of Action for Road Safety. It estimated that some 1.3 million people died in traffic accidents and that this figure could reach 1.9 million by 2020. Most of these deaths occur in low and middle-income countries.

When we drive we take risks. However, to drive comfortably and enjoy the freedom and benefits that driving brings we do not focus on the risks. If we did many fewer of us would drive. What we do instead is have confidence in what we can do to drive safely.

The coronavirus is a new risk that has caught the world unprepared. One of the most important aspects of it is the uncertainty. Naturally we find uncertainty difficult because we are sense makers and we want to know what will happen to us and those we love.  We can easily fill the void of uncertainty. We can imagine we don’t feel well. We can imagine we have some of the symptoms that are less definite. We can imagine that someone close to us could become ill. If we are old or have underlying health problems we can wonder If there would be a ventilator available if get ill; would a younger person be given priority? me? What would happen if someone close dies and we can’t see them? Will we be able to cope if the Lockdown goes on for weeks?

We empathise with the tragic stories we hear. We think about the doctors, nurses and care workers who put themselves in danger.

None of these worries are helped by the fact that the pandemic is constantly in the news. Aljazeera covers what is happening across the whole world. If you want to see how different countries are coping Worldometers.info is constantly updated with data of new cases and deaths. Governments across the world are imposing lockdowns, ramping up testing for antigens and antibodies, manufacturing PPE and ventilators, and researching treatments and vaccines. There is a constant torrent of information and commentary.

When thinking about the media coverage it’s worth noting that other health risks we face do not get the same treatment; e.g., seasonal flu. WHO estimate that in any one year between 290,000 and 650,000 die worldwide from seasonal flu. The Centers for Disease Control in the USA estimate that from 1/10/19 to 21/3/20 between 24,000 and 62,000 have died from seasonal flu just in America. This is the case even though there are vaccines available. Despite these figures, the media pay very little attention to seasonal flu and most of us hardly give it a thought and take few precautions such as social distancing etc.

However, there seem to be important differences between seasonal flu and coronavirus. Some have estimated that coronavirus is twenty times more deadly. It is too early to know whether it will lead to more deaths than seasonal flu. However, it has taken the world by surprise and due to its speed has threatened to overwhelm health services. This is why the extraordinary step of Lockdowns has been imposed to slow the spread.  

Of course, Lockdowns lead to their own problems. These may in some ways prove more serious than the virus Itself. They give us more things to worry about. Will we be able to get enough food? What will happen to our jobs? Will we have enough money? When, and if, it’s all over what will happen to the economy? Will house prices go down? Will inflation take off? Will there be a widespread depression with unemployment, poverty and social disorder?

While much of this is important and interesting it keeps us focused on the many issues involved. Many of us will be thinking and talking about the pandemic a lot. At times we can feel confused, overwhelmed or even stressed and anxious. How can we be interested and concerned but stop this tipping over into anxiety?

If we follow the dominant mental health narrative, we will focus only on how we are feeling. We will notice when we feel anxious. We will assume that this is caused by the situation we are all in. This view masks the active psychology of anxiety. Nevertheless, some of the advice in the media is sensible and may help up to a point. We might be distracted from our anxieties for a time by doing something we enjoy, learning a new hobby, or taking some deep breaths. But these things won’t change whatever anxious thoughts we have. We can easily return to these in quieter moments when not preoccupied by the tricks and techniques on offer.

On the other hand, to unmask or reveal the true psychology of anxiety we can remember that anxiety is made up of two bits of thinking, (predicting and not wanting). This takes us beyond the recommended tricks and techniques. Then we can address how our particular thoughts are the essence of our anxiety.  

We can stop and ask ourselves “What am I thinking NOW?”. “What am I predicting?” “What am I imagining could happen?” These questions tackle the essence of feeling anxious. Most of us will come up with ideas and images that we wouldn’t want to happen. It’s how we react to these that matters. We can build on them and escalate them into a detailed ongoing preoccupation; or we can let them go and not dwell on them. We can ask: How do these thoughts make me feel? How realistic are these worries? Do I need to think about them now? Is there anything practical I can do to make myself safer? What else could I think about? These are choices only we can make.

Asking these questions at the right time isn’t easy as we are not used to doing it. It involves an effort that can feel as unnatural as sitting in the driving seat for the first time. However, with practice it becomes more automatic and second nature. If we get very good at it, we will feel more in control of many situations not just coronavirus. Remember when it comes to anxious thoughts, they don’t just happen to you. You are in the driving seat.

Keep reminding yourself that feelings of anxiety arise because of how we are thinking. Most of us will have concerns with the present situation; there is a lot at stake. But we should try not to let our anxious thoughts runaway with us. When we drive we don’t think of the 1.3 million people who die in accidents each year; having learned to drive safely we just keep doing it. Similarly, with the virus we need to learn how to keep ourselves safe and focus on doing this however long the Lockdown lasts.

Stay safe, follow the government guidance and be patient; it will pass.