March 2nd, 2020

Anxiety over the Coronavirus is part of our evolutionary makeup. It’s important that we try to accept it, not bow to it

By Dr Lucy Stirling

  • Anxiety
  • Health Anxiety
  • Panic Attacks
  • Social Anxiety

The global spread of the Coronavirus has left a lot of people somewhere between mildly concerned and full-blown panicked. This heightening of international anxiety has raised some questions in psychological circles. Should this be considered as a form of health anxiety? Is it an acute form of general anxiety, or should it follow ‘climate anxiety’ and be given its own name - virus anxiety?

Psychologists tend to make a habit of compartmentalising and defining different presentations of the same condition - this is how we develop specialised treatment models. But however we decide to name it, anxiety over the Coronavirus is one of the clearest examples of our evolutionary need for anxiety - it’s our survival instinct in action. What we also need to be aware of however, is that this anxiety is an example of our emotion-driven ‘animal brain’ and our advanced human ‘higher brain’ not working particularly well together.

Anxiety is an evolutionary response which helps us stay alive. It makes us focus on things that may pose danger so we can react to them and give ourselves the best chance of survival. The Coronavirus is a new and fairly unknown strand of flu which is having a global impact and has caused many to sadly lose their lives - so of course it is normal to feel worried by it. Our brain is telling us to worry in order to survive.

However, whilst it is completely understandable to feel anxious about it, changing our actions based purely on feelings isn’t always in our best interest. Anxiety tends to limit rather than broaden our experiences and this in itself can have a negative affect on how we feel. Not to trivialise the impact that the Coronavirus has had, but rationally speaking this is not something which requires us to immediately stay inside and avoid all contact with others. Since its outbreak, far more people have died from the standard ‘flu’ (influenza) than from the Coronavirus. The World Health Organisation estimates 500,000 people die from ‘flu’ every year, so if we’re not too concerned about catching that, or are at least confident it won’t be devastating, then we don’t need to be too anxious about the Coronavirus. But of course, the unknown is always more scary.

It is widely acknowledged that simply saying to someone ‘don’t worry’ is pretty unhelpful advice. Worry is not something we have a whole lot of control over - if it was, we wouldn’t do it. What is far more helpful is to recognise that what we’re feeling is just that: a feeling. It is an emotional, physiological response that is hardwired from birth. No matter how strong it may be, it should never ‘outrank’ fact and our own rationality when it comes to decision making.

The practice of being aware of the present moment, without judgement, without action, is referred to as ‘mindfulness’. We can use this practice to improve our skills in noticing our emotions without having to change our behaviour. Acknowledging that our emotional reaction is simply part of an evolutionary composition strengthens our ability to handle anxiety. It may be challenging at first, or even feel like a waste of time, but the more we practise mindfulness, the more we can get a hold on what we’re experiencing. The scientific literature firmly backs this, and there are lots of apps that can guide you through learning and practicing mindfulness.

Formal advice has been issued by those that best understand the virus and those that best understand controlling epidemics, you can find it here. We need to try to base our actions on the facts rather than on how we are feeling. Sometimes we can manage this and sometimes we can’t. If you find that it’s easier said than done and you are battling with how you are feeling then there are talking therapy options that can be hugely beneficial.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is the evidence-based psychological treatment for anxiety disorders. The approach aims to help people change routinely held thoughts and behaviours which are problematic and affecting day-to-day functioning/quality of life. A key part of treatment is being given the opportunity to experience the natural rise and fall of anxiety without the need for a ‘survival’ intervention. Clinical psychologists and CBT therapists use graded exposure to help clients to be better resourced to face the feelings of anxiety with knowledge and acceptance.

To summarise, it is a normal human response to feel concerned about the Coronavirus. However, we need to learn to back our actions with fact-based information and to look beyond our feelings to avoid acting on impulse and narrowing our lives unnecessarily. Get your information from the World Health Organisation, reassure yourself that it’s ok to feel anxious and talk to other people - we all share the same concerns and realising that our inner experiences are common rather than isolating can be very powerful.

That being said, if you are finding your life uncomfortably impaired by worries about the Coronavirus, or indeed any other aspect of life, speak to us at HelloSelf and we’ll match you with a specialist clinical psychologist who can help.

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