*By Alexia Vassiliou
To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful would be an understatement. Anxiety about contracting the virus yourself or a loved one, how the virus is going to progress, job and economic uncertainty, complete change of our everyday lives, fear of the unknown are all very upsetting and of course normal and understandable concerns.
Anxiety as is fear are both necessary evolutionary feelings that are vital for human survival so up to a point feeling somewhat anxious when faced with a threatening trigger is a healthy positive reaction that allows us to react in a manner that increases our chances of survival. The problem begins when this anxiety is irrational and it spills over our everyday lives rendering us dysfunctional, making us unable to meet our commitments or complete our tasks and affecting our social interactions. It is when this anxiety becomes so intense that is actually controlling our lives leaving us utterly overwhelmed that we may be talking about coronaphobia. The functional impairment is key in understanding whether you are actually suffering from coronaphobia or a rational fear of the coronavirus.
Scientists coined the term coronaphobia to explain this debilitating and disanalogous irrational fear. It is the umbrella term that comprises of two basic phobias. The first is an irrational fear of contracting the virus to the point of avoiding to leave your house, go to work, having contact with other people being unable to get it off your mind and it can also manifest in physical symptoms such as headaches problems sleeping increased heart rate and panic attacks.
The second is the fear of those who have contracted the virus and it involves a fear of them spreading it to you even if they are not contagious anymore. This leads to avoiding people and stigmatisation.
We all know that the mind and the body are interconnected and that whenever we are faced with a threatening trigger our body gets into the fight or flight response leading to a release of hormones like adrenalin and cortisol which are actually very useful in preparing as when dealing with an actual existing threat. However, when this fear and anxiety response are continuous they lead to exhaustion and burnout, decreasing our concentration and productivity.
Young people have also been experiencing increased anxiety not just because of the virus itself but because of fear of the aftermath of this pandemic and how it is going to affect employment the economy and their future.
During this pandemic taking care of both our physical and mental health is equally important as our brain and bodily functions are interconnected. It is important to know that our brain despite being a magnificent organ cannot recognize perception from reality. Leading onto this when we perceive something as an actual threat and we are being irrational or exaggerate the brain cannot know that. As a result it commands our bodily organs to secrete hormones like cortisol and adrenalin to prepare us to deal with a real threat in the best possible manner creating psychosomatic changes. Based on this fact one way of dealing with coronaphobia is a technique called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which aims to teach the person to challenge negative automatic thoughts so as to prevent the cascade effect of hormones leading to more functional behaviours. Therefore acknowledging and labelling the emotion as well as understanding the irrationality of our fear can minimize physical symptoms. Taking a few deep breaths and bringing ourself to the here and now we can stop the flooding of cortisol and adrenalin and restore the body to a state of calm a job of the parasympathetic nervous system. Regaining a sense of control is key in dealing with coronaphobia as coronaphobia is all about loosing control of your thoughts and emotions causing you to become so overwhelmed by them that you are debilitated.
Mindfulness is another very successful coping technique being the ability to ground yourself in that exact moment in time focussing on what is actually happening rather than ruminating or catastrophizing. As explained by the philosopher Lao Tzu if you are depressed you are living in the past and if you are anxious you are living in the future, it is when you are living in the present that you are at peace. That does not mean that in the case of the coronavirus a rational amount of fear is not expected but as we already explained coronaphobia is an irrational debilitating fear that does not allow you to function. Therefore, according to mindfulness you should be mindful of the here and now your actions and try to anchor, ground yourself in the present when your mind starts wondering off and catastrophizing.
Based on this logic it is important not to multitask because it can be overwhelming but break down tasks into smaller steps that you can tackle and then step by step finish the bigger task successfully. This also works because when you are able to tackle something you get positive reinforcement the feeling good about oneself that boosts your confidence and fuels you with more energy and positivity to move on to another task.
It is also vital to stick to a routine as it provides you with a sense of normality even if the world feels to be in a chaotic state. Self care and being good to yourself and not too judgmental and critical are of basic importance. Try to stick to a schedule as it gives a sense of control rather than letting yourself go. Moreover, try adding some calming daily activities that are pleasant to you and at the same time make you feel productive like cooking drawing solving puzzles, reading or watching pleasant movies and remember to be mindful while doing them ie in the here and now. If your mind starts wondering off with negative automatic thoughts bring it back to the here and now.
Exercise is something very important to add to your daily routine even if this is at home. Physical activity releases positive hormones like dopamine that make you feel good but also boosts your confidence. Feeling productive and good about yourself and your body counteract the feelings of worthlessness you may be encountering.
Do not get overzealous about reading information from the internet and social media. People that suffer from coronaphobia have the tendency to read all about it and check themselves for symptoms. In this way they believe that they gain a sense of control but this is untrue as it draws their focus and attention to the problem thus think about it all the time. Try to stick to one credible trusted source and read it once per day preferably not before bedtime as it is going to affect your quality of sleep.
As we have already explained people suffering of coronaphobia have an irrational fear of other people who have passed through the disease infecting them and as a result engage in self isolation which can actually accentuate the issue amid this time of uncertainty and worry. We all know that social support and reaching out to your support system is a buffer against mental distress. As a result it is important to stress that they should reach out to their friends and family and talk about their fear even if it is by phone or social media.
Conclusively we have to remind ourselves that going through psychological problems is nothing to be ashamed of and that if you or a loved one is suffering from coronaphobia professional help is available and should be sought after if needed. At the end of the day if COVID-19 taught us something is that we are social creatures affecting each other systemically and that everything that we took for granted for so long and we thus didn’t appreciate as much as we should have is not a given, we should constantly remind ourselves of the things we should be grateful for.
I am a board certified counselling Psychologist in Cyprus working to provide clients with tailored treatment plans that can be integrated in their daily lives.
I have achieved a BSc(honrs) in Psychology and an MSc in Counselling Psychology in London UK trained in different approaches like cognitive behavioural therapy, psychodynamic, systemic, humanistic and person-centred therapy. During my training I worked for the NHS (National Health Service) in England.
In addition to my licence I hold a certification in addictions from NAADAC; the association for addiction professionals following which I worked for TOLMI (the open therapeutic community for addicted persons) a part of KENTHEA. I also worked for the YOUTH BOARD of Cyprus providing counselling to adolescents.
From 2005 until 2020 i was the head of the Psychology Department of the GC School of Careers as well as the teacher for EDEXCEL A Level Psychology.
I participated as a spokesperson in several seminars like 'Plastic Surgery and adolescents' held by the Cyprus Society of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery and for the ZONTA club of Cyprus. I was also the psychologist in two fear of flying seminars organised by FSH-med , Cobalt and Aegean Airlines.
Throughout these years I talked in various TV programs as a psychologist on a non-profit basis.
Licences: I am a licenced Counselling Psychologist of SEPS organization Cyprus
Alexia Vassiliou(BSc Psychology(hons), MSc Counselling Psychology London UK