Managing Coronavirus Fear
The current coronavirus crisis is causing a sharp increase in stress and anxiety even among people who were never really troubled by it before. For those who were already struggling, especially with health anxiety, the situation is creating panic and a rapid deterioration in their mental health.
A few weeks ago, just before the UK went into lockdown, I was talking to an elderly friend on WhatsApp. She is one of the vulnerable: late 70s, pre-existing conditions, low immune system. She also has health anxiety and is a chronic worrier. She lives alone in a small community, but cases had already been reported there and when I called her she was right on the edge of a panic attack. She was not sleeping, watching the TV constantly, and with every new reported death her panic rose. She was stuck in the “what-if” worry spiral, running through hundreds of imagined future scenarios in her head.
I was seriously concerned about her.
I’d offered her help with anxiety in the past but she didn’t like the idea of anyone “messing with her head”. But this time I was firm. She really needed to calm down, and quickly. This level of anxiety floods our bodies with stress hormones, damaging our cells and triggering an immune response that actually makes us more susceptible to pathogens such as COVID-19. These “cytokine storms” are a huge overreaction of the immune system, leading to lung inflammation and the sudden crash that turns a relatively mild case into a deadly one.
I usually work in a very specific format: a consultation followed by three sessions. This is to ensure that I can check my work in each session, leaving no room for doubt that the desired result has been achieved. In this case, though, I didn’t have time. We started with breathing exercises, and then I ran through a very quick susceptibility test. We established that her preferred emotional state was “calm”. We dealt with all the subconscious objections to being calm, which many people would recognise.
They were mainly a lot of “what ifs.”
The subconscious only wants one thing: the best strategy for the most happiness. Obviously, though, being in a constant state of anxiety doesn’t cause happiness! Anxiety, or the “fight or flight” response, is a stress reaction dating back to our early ancestors who needed quick protection from danger. It’s very appropriate as an early warning system; for example, if we’re being chased by a bear. But you can’t run from a virus, so the response is inappropriate.
The only thing that worrying achieves is to make you feel worried. If you can actually do something about the problem - self isolate, wash your hands, social distancing etc. - then do it. It will help.
If you can’t do anything about it, what good will worrying do? It only adds an extra problem to an already difficult situation. We can get through this crisis the easy way or the hard way.
The hard way is to do it in a constant state of worry and panic.
The easy way is to be calm.
We gradually worked through the objections, then did a Mindscape. This is a lovely technique of guiding the person through a mental map of the problem or the goal using self-generated metaphors. I guided my friend through this map of Calm, helping her find a clear path to the goal.
This entire session took about an hour, and by the end she was tired but breathing deeply and feeling relaxed. I was hopeful, but even I was surprised by how calm she was when we spoke the next day. She’d slept well, and didn’t have the TV on. She felt much better and fully accepted her situation:
“Well, there’s nothing I can do about it, is there? So I’m just getting on with it.”
She now only watches the headlines once a day. She has a routine every day of walking around the garden, chatting to her neighbours over the fence, reading and doing puzzles. She sits out for a socially distanced coffee morning with the neighbours on warm days, and the only thing that bothers her is the boredom of a cold or rainy day. One of her neighbours has a temperature at the moment; she is concerned but calm. Someone she knows died of the virus last week. She is sad but calm. I haven’t seen a flicker of panic since the session, and our conversations are light hearted and fun.
She’s calmer than she was before the virus; in fact, calmer than I’ve ever seen her and I've known her for years!
It’s hard to believe that one hour on a video call can make such a difference, but it made me realise that I can offer a fast, effective and practical solution to coronavirus stress and anxiety in a single session. I’m now offering this as a standalone treatment for the duration of this crisis, with elderly and vulnerable people, NHS and other key workers prioritised for time slots. NHS workers with ID also get a discount.
We will beat this virus eventually, but in the meantime we can be calm and get through the coming weeks with minimal stress.
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