In case you haven’t read enough about COVID-19 and anxiety today, here’s how I’m coping with health anxiety* as illustrated by the 5 Stages of Grief model.
*my particular brand of nutty
How to help someone with health anxiety
Before getting into it, let’s talk a bit about what health anxiety even is.
Anxiety over your health?
Yep, spot on! Take a seat.
Health anxiety is another name for hypochondria. I like to think of it as the nerdy one of the mental illnesses.
I was the “sick bay” kid for a part of my life, convinced I had a very serious or terminal illness. My anxiety can rarely be helped by seeking reassurance (which I do, almost constantly to both health professionals and loved ones).
The thing with anxiety is as you’ll probably know already it causes a buttload of physiological symptoms. Like sweating, and shortness of breath, and lightheadedness.
All of these vague symptoms that have a germaphobe like me screaming COVID-19 and mentally crossing myself off the family tree (I know the death rate is below 4%, but humour)
If someone you love has extreme health anxiety, I can only suggest encouraging them to make a box or list of soothing items and activities. Distraction works very well for me. Here are other ways to look after your mental health during lockdown.
Quite often I’ll want to feed my anxiety more and more information on whatever I’m afraid of (in this case, coronavirus) but that only makes it worse.
Helping someone to downgrade their anxiety level before you try to help them see the irrationality of their fear is always the way to go. It’ll be pointless attempting it if they’re in the middle of panic.
Ocd fear of contamination
Before coronavirus made headlines, I was just your average woman who practised social distancing, didn’t breathe in elevators and hovered when peeing in public bathrooms (don’t do this it’s not good for your bladder!)
Suffice it to say, I wasn’t exactly chill about germs. Being diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder in 2004 was a welcomed explanation for my germaphobe symptoms.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, no matter how terrible my handwriting is.This blog and the contents on it should not and do not serve as a replacement for seeking medical advice from a practitioner.
My symptoms and behaviours before diagnosis with ocd and health anxiety:
- Irrational fears over contamination and disease and illness
- Irrational fears over food expiration dates, food hygiene practices and handling
- Disordered handwashing rituals
As you can see, my obsessive-compulsive disorder is/was mostly food and illness-related. Everyone is different.
Shock and Denial
Back when COVID-19 was still isolated to Wuhan, China, I was devouring media. I watched Youtube videos of doctors in China battling exhaustion and fear-mongering breaking news updates of “scares”.
I figured that somehow, the more media and information that I armed myself with, the less chance I had of becoming unwell.
Again, rationality goes out the window when you’re dealing with health anxiety.
As I watched the COVID-19 finally reach Australian shores, I denied its existence. Despite a man in my city dying.
I read about the hordes of people panic buying toilet paper and pasta, hand sanitizer, tuna, diced tomato and even bloody flour. Now people do lots of things in pandemic times. I denied is being that serious, until I saw it.
This looks like a regular shop (which is unfortunate for me as a dramatic photo would’ve been cool). Let me assure you, the person in front of me purchase two pallettes worth of diced tomatoes, over 6 bottles of hand sanitiser, loads of flour, pasta, rolls and rolls of toilet paper and frozen foods.
She’d be forgiven if she was preparing an Italian feast and hosting the family at her place but it didn’t stop there. The whole time, she spoke loudly to the cashier about how she was “being prepared” for when the corona hit and it was just a smart thing to do before they stopped importing food from other countries.
I had let out a giggle at her total which was over $400 at this point.
Then she turned and “well you’re smug! You won’t be when you get CORONA!”
She moved on and the cashier scanned through my non-panic-buy purchases.
The cashier and I laughed at her. She, like so many others, were allowing fear and the media to motivate her actions, to turn her into an anxious mess.
Inside I wondered whether I should be filling my cart with *essentials* though to be safe.
And therein likes the difficulty of coping with health anxiety in the midst of a global pandemic. There’s no telling whether you’re being genuinely health conscious and savvy, or if your OCD fear of contamination is captaining the ship of your crazy boat.
Anger-its because people aren’t washing their hands!
Knowing that the #toiletpapergate would be over soon and that luck had it we went shopping before the bizarre turn of events, I wasn’t worried about that. I began to feel angry at the injustice. I could understand the psychology of panic buying, I’m no stranger to anxiety I mean HELLO! It was the quantities at which people were buying, the lack of empathy for others, the thoughtlessness.
No consideration for those people in the community who can’t afford to hop from store to store if products are out, or who aren’t able to order online.
A large part of my anger was perpetuated by rumination. I’d be going about my day and get drawn in by a thought about how if only more people practised better hand hygiene; didn’t cough everywhere, didn’t buy up face masks unnecessarily, then the spread would lessen.
Anger at the amount of utter ignorance in the community. The majority of the people panic buying in the community don’t even fit into the demographics of those that would be largely affected by COVID-19 symptoms should they contract it.
Mostly though, the anger was at myself for being afraid all the time.
The bargaining stage, “just a little germ”
If you have a mental illness, this may feel relatable to you. I often feel extremely selfish. Coping with health anxiety takes up a large chunk of my life, it is a day to day struggle. It affects where we go as a family, what we eat, who we hang out with. I live with a lot of mum guilt that I’m working on.
However, when it comes to my daughter, she’s everything. My germaphobe symptoms and tendencies haven’t translated across to her (mind you, she is only 21 months old) and I want to keep it that way. That does mean that she is pretty gross. I’ve seen the kid lick the bottom of her shoes.
While I know there have been no cases of COVID-19 affecting toddlers and babies, I worry. I worry because duh, I love her. Also though because she is doomed if they expect her to follow any hand hygiene practices.
The bargaining phase set in not too long ago when I resigned us (my husband and I) to eventually succumbing to the virus, much like you would a common cold. Once we get it and isolate and recover, that’s it. Right?
Depression-We Need A New Planet
This phase has been with me for the whole ride if I’m being honest. It’s a co-captain of the journey and not directly health anxiety-related. Like I mentioned about being angry, the coronavirus outbreak news coverage, public behaviour and government action has left me feeling despondent.
A friend recently posted on Facebook that she was out of toilet paper completely, and as the messages piled in coming to her aid, all I could say was I was losing faith in humanity. Which is silly now I think of it. The good of humanity was right there.
Acceptance- I am NOT there yet.
With every day, the symptoms of my OCD and health anxiety were mounting and the only reprieve was a combination of medication, mindfulness for OCD and finally- disconnecting from the media.
I have feared making a post on hypochondria and my struggles with it but seeing the pandemonium in shopping centres and people abandoning civility, I figured what have I got to lose?
Anyone else out there experience this? How are you keeping?
This Anxious Mum