The Coronavirus pandemic has bought with it continuous news updates and government guidance that changes every few days and with this, come ever increasing stresses. In the space of three weeks our lives have been turned upside down. This rapidly changing landscape has prompted record levels of anxiety as we all try to come to terms with an extraordinarily uncertain situation and a forever changed world.
Uncertainty can be tricky for all of us
Uncertainty is stressful for us all, uncertainty can actually be more stressful than the prospect of an assured negative outcome. Scientific studies have found greater levels of stress were experienced when participants were unsure whether or not they would receive an electric shock. They were actually less stressed when they knew the shock was definitely coming. Aversion to uncertainty can be so strong that sometimes people convince themselves of the worst-case scenario as an attempt to regain control over the situation. It’s sometimes easier to think the worst than to sit with uncertainty.
Uncertainty can breed irrational behaviour
When people are faced with uncertainty, that can be a trigger for irrational behaviour. For example, panic buying and hoarding, despite reassurance from governments and supermarkets that there is plenty of food and a strong supply chain. Everyone knows there is enough food but still, irrational behaviour rears its head. This behaviour has been criticised on social media as simply ‘selfish’ but it's more complicated than that.
Why do people panic buy and hoard?
Hoarding is often seen in response to psychological distress. If you've ever encountered a hoarder, you will know that there is a usually a loss at the heart of the hoarding response. It could be a bereavement, or the breakdown of a marriage, all losses can cause severe mental health problems to develop if they are not addressed. In cases of loss, hoarding can serve a psychological or emotional function that is being seen now in society.
So what can we do?
When a valuable resource is limited we automatically panic and try to make sure we have enough of that resource. Even if we are reassured that there are enough supplies to go round, the media can create a panic by showing pictures of empty shelves and queues snaking out of the supermarket.
The more we hear and read about empty shelves and long queues, the more anxious we become about missing out, rushing down to the shops ourselves. Ironically, this increases demand, creating the very conditions that we feared in the first place.
The pandemic has upturned our lives and many of the things that we took for granted in our everyday lives have been challenged. Freedom, certainty, normality, all have been challenged. Suddenly everything feels unreliable and we are confronted with the scary reality that we're not really in control or our lives, we don't control our lives, not really. However, shopping and hoarding, is something we can control and it naturally becomes a way of temporarily relieving some of the anxiety that some of us may be feeling right now.
Safety isn't in plentiful supply right now
Coronavirus has amplified any of our existing anxieties. We can all worry about losing our jobs, homes loved ones but Coronavirus has pushed those fears right into focus, for many of us. Our basic sense of safety has been disrupted. When this happens we revert to ‘survival mode’ and we focus on basic physiological needs such as food, water and shelter. So having plenty of food in the cupboards makes us feel a little bit safer.
Some people will hoard news too. Following Coronavirus news 24/7 is also another form of safety behaviour. People feel safer in the knowledge that they have all of the facts about the pandemic, they feel in control again but in reality all they may be doing is feeding into their anxiety even more. Whilst it’s important to be informed, there is a limit to the usefulness of this information for people who don’t have the power to influence the news. Alternatively it can create a sense of powerlessness, fear and uncertainty.
So what can you do if you're anxious?
For anxious people it's a good idea to limit your news viewing to two good quality sources, avoid Facebook posts from random people who are not qualified to speak about Coronavirus. So, for example, try the BBC News or ITV news for your updates. And that’s it. Don't check the news anymore and definitely avoid reading updates in bed or close to bedtime.
Also try to keep to routines as much as you possibly can. So if you clean the house on Saturday, try to keep to that routine. If you talk to your parents or friends on a Friday night, then try to keep to that too. These are called anchors and they anchor you to normality. Anchors help you hold onto normality, they give you a sense of a familiar life. These anchors will help you to hold on to a sense of time and space when everything else around you feels strange and quite frankly, weird.
Taking care of your physical wellbeing is also important, because physical resilience help to protect mental health too. So make sure you’re eating well, sleeping well and making the most of your daily exercise. Finally, the most important factor for our mental health is the quality of our personal relationships. Try to schedule group chats and keep in touch with your nearest and dearest to maintain those relationships.
Follow this plan and it will help you to improve your chances of staying mentally well, as we all navigate our way through the Coronavirus pandemic and remember stay safe.