The coronavirus pandemic gripping the world has triggered an increase in anxiety among Australians as the nation faces an uncertain future.
Fights over toilet paper at supermarkets and the stockpiling of medicines, driven by lockdown fears, give an insight into the toll COVID-19 is taking on mental health.
Clinical Psychologist Dr Rebecca Anderson, from Curtin University’s School of Psychology, says global news filtering through about the pandemic is making Australians believe they need to act urgently.
“We know with anxiety that people try to find a sense of safety. They try to get a sense of security,” Dr Anderson says.
“With all our mental health disorders that involve anxiety, people look for ways to reduce that anxiety. In a way, having additional toilet paper, having pasta on hand, they’re ways to sort of get a sense of control again and try to reduce that anxiety that people are experiencing.”
How much anxiety is normal?
Dr Anderson suggests everyone experiences anxiety to some degree but warns the global COVID-19 pandemic could see a rise in more problematic disorders such as health anxiety.
“I think what we’re seeing at the moment is just a general increase in anxiety about this crisis,” she says.
“People are trying to mentally problem solve and that’s what worry is. It’s just mental problem solving, trying to think through ‘How do I need to be prepared?’, ‘How do I need to be ready for this situation?’
“But what that big shift does is actually push up the clinical end of the scale of anxiety so we’re probably going to see increases in things like health anxiety disorder, which is where people worry excessively that they might develop a health condition and that worry sometimes leads to additional medical testing, even though there might not be any good evidence that they need a test. At that point, it can lead to reassurance seeking from doctors and even just to behaviour like body checking.”
What effect is the crisis having on people with existing mental health issues?
Dr Anderson, who helps run a specialist obsessive compulsive and related disorders clinic in Perth, says past crises, such as Mad Cow Disease, suggest mental health issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) will spike.
“We’ve seen patterns of this in the past where there’s been real threats, real health crises, where people do present in higher numbers with concerns about that.
“We’re likely to see an increase in distress. We’re likely to see an increase in symptoms and that will mean more people are going to need some support to manage their anxiety throughout this time.”
What help is available for people experiencing mental stress during the coronavirus pandemic?
Dr Anderson welcomes the government’s move to boost telehealth consultations to combat the coronavirus.
Last week, it announced that some telehealth items would be temporarily listed on the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) and that government-subsidised video and telephone consultations with GPs would be made exclusive to coronavirus patients and vulnerable groups for the next six months.
“So if anyone heads to their GP, they would get a referral to a psychologist that is eligible to receive some support to do that through Medicare via telehealth, which is a fantastic outcome.
“For concerns about OCD and health anxiety, there are some free online self-help programs that could be useful. There’s some modules called Helping Health Anxiety and they’re available on a website run by The Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI) in Perth, and for any children, if we see an increase in OCD symptoms there’s a free online treatment program called OCD? NOT ME!.”
Tips for managing anxiety during coronavirus
“The key message that I’ve been trying to repeat to people is let yourself, and your kids, because kids can be affected by this too, let yourself have a bit of worry time,” Dr Anderson says.
“So sitting down and thinking through ‘What’s going on?’, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ and letting kids express their fears as well.
“Because if we try to push worries away, that’s the fastest way to make them come back and they’ll keep popping in throughout the day and keep you feeling anxious.”
However, Dr Anderson stresses that people must place a limit on the process before turning their attention to more positive outlets.
“In terms of limiting, we also talk about limiting exposure to the news. The news is not designed to reassure you, it’s there to get your attention and get you engaged.”
Dr Anderson isn’t suggesting a blanket ban on crucial news about coronavirus, but suggests Australians look to reliable sources of information, namely The Department of Health, for up-to-date guidelines around hand washing, social distancing and reducing the risk of the virus spreading.
The road ahead
As Australia moves into lockdown Dr Anderson says anxiety among the community is likely to increase.
“We are going to see more people with those anxiety type presentations. For some other disorders it can sort of shift focus,” she says.
“What we will see is perhaps more of shift towards online support for people or telehealth-based support.”
Dr Anderson urged Australians to take steps to minimise their anxiety levels and focus only on what they can control.
“It is normal to be feeling some anxiety during these uncertain times and taking some steps to limiting the amount of time we give to thinking about this and focusing on the controllables, I think they’re the thing we really need to do.”