With access to ever-present streams of communication on the COVID-19 pandemic, psychiatrist Dr. Nelson Clarke says it’s important and necessary for people to take a break and limit access to the barrage of updates, press conferences and news releases. He suggests limiting exposure to one hour, once per day, and choosing the best sources for reliable, accurate information on local and international information, to make good decisions about health and safety, which he said can aid in dealing with anxiety during these uncertain times.
COVID-19 is making an impact on everyone in different ways – but stress and anxiety is a pretty universal effect, as everybody has concerns about coronavirus, a serious threat to people’s health and lives. But being aware of the facts brings the realization of being at risk and the worry about health and concerns of loved ones, according to Clarke.
Whether you’re social distancing, in lockdown, self-isolating, or just finding yourself with more free time than you’re accustomed to, the uncertainty of what’s ahead can lead to anxiety.
“Being isolated from our usual physical contacts, having to remain quarantined, not having the freedom that we have been accustomed to, can take a toll on us,” said Clarke. “We may become frustrated, or for some persons, begin to feel imprisoned and sad or have excessive anxiety. It is important we take time to understand why it is happening and then to put some measures in place to manage things.”
With the country under 24-hour curfew, the doctor said getting outside for a couple of hours of sunlight may help some people. As well as contacting family and friends by phone. He said people should also try reading, hobbies, home projects, watching entertaining television programs and physical exercise, which he said are all helpful strategies to get over the feeling of being locked in and helpless.
Clarke defines anxiety as a simple state of being afraid, worried, or concerned about an event or circumstance, where the outcome is uncertain and there is potential for harm, loss, injury, or death. He said this emotional state can be accompanied by physical symptoms caused by the effect of worry on the brain and central nervous system, preparing to address, or to flee, from the threat causing the worry or concern.
“Having anxiety can lead to taking action that leads to surviving the threat. It is not a bad thing, but being in a prolonged state of anxiousness can be distressing, overwhelming and lead to health and social problems, if not handled appropriately.”
Common symptoms of anxiety
Feeling restless, tense, irritable and nervous, the doctor said, are common symptoms of anxiety. People could also have a feeling that danger is close or that something awful is about to happen; or feel that they should run or escape.
Physical symptoms, he said, include rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, taking quick breaths or feeling that one can’t get enough air, sweating, trembling, having difficulty thinking clearly, unable to focus on things other than the threat and the physical symptoms and feeling tired or exhausted. Some people also have trouble with poor appetite and difficulty falling sleep.
An acute onset of anxiety, or a panic attack, can be frightening, according to the doctor. At times, because the
physical symptoms can be so distressing, he said they can cause a person to think that something very serious must be wrong.
“Often, the person may conclude, even after being reassured by medical professionals that they are not seriously physically ill, that something is wrong, but the doctors have just not been able to diagnose it. Persons with acute anxiety may, therefore, often present at the emergency department with severe symptoms.”
Clarke said a string of severe anxiety/panic attacks may lead to a person needing to be referred for evaluation by a mental health professional and then given assistance in managing the anxiety.
“Managing the anxiety and stress requires that we each take responsibility for dealing with our fears and our feelings, and in assisting others who may be struggling to cope. Understanding that our fears are reasonable given the circumstances that we face. But we ought not allow the fear to cause us to behave irrationally.”
Children and older people
Clarke said children and the elderly are sometimes forgotten in the discussion of anxiety, but that anxiety can affect them as well. He stressed the importance of listening to and providing children and older people with both the attention they need when they voice fears and with help to manage their concerns about the present and future.
The doctor relayed that all children do not react to anxiety and stress in the same way, and that it is important for parents and other adults to be aware of changes in a child’s behavior and engage the child to talk about the issues causing them to feel anxious or fearful if the child can do so. For the child who is not yet able to communicate clearly, Clarke said parents and other adults need to provide reassurance.
“Children are affected by the way they see the adults in their lives manage anxiety and stress. It is important to model the behaviors, which help in managing anxiety,” he said.
Exercise and anxiety
Clarke advised that regular exercise will also help to reduce anxiousness and irritability. And that people reconnecting with their spiritual self, and their beliefs, can be effective in managing anxiety.
“Prayer and meditation can be very helpful. We do all that we can, and we rely on the power of the Almighty to aid and to sustain us,” he said.
The psychiatrist recommended that having a network of friends and family who people can still communicate with and receive support from during stressful times has enormous benefit. Talking, sharing and encouraging each other, he said, is a great help in addressing anxiety. Social distancing, he said, does not prevent people from communicating.
“Humor is a way of lightening the mood; a good joke can help.”
Adequate rest and proper nutrition would also help people to be prepared to manage the stress that comes at times like this.
He encouraged people to not rely on alcohol and chemical substances to manage – and to be aware that reliance on them may result in other problems.
The psychiatrist said most people who are feeling anxious and stressed because of the pandemic are unlikely to see a healthcare professional, unless the distress becomes overwhelming. People who have concerns and need answers, he said, should make use of the hotlines: 819-7652, 816-3799, 812-0576 or 815-5850; and also contact their general practitioners and primary care physicians by telephone.
Clarke encourages people to follow the recommendations regarding social distancing, hygiene (cough and sneeze into the sleeve or a tissue), hand washing, sanitizing, disinfecting surfaces and food preparation to assist in reducing the risk of becoming infected with the virus, help to lessen the spread and reduce the helplessness that people feel.