Dealing with Coronaphobia
Updated: May 15
The world changed in 2020 and we all face the challenge of adapting to a “new normal”. With protracted periods being spent in isolation, people have been left to evolve psychologically in the absence of customary social or even human contact. Primitive instincts and ideations are becoming more prevalent and irrational conception much less well moderated. Foremost amongst these thought patterns is often that of anxiety.
Positive exposure to manageable levels of stress is fundamental in helping us to formulate appropriate responses. This works well when experienced amongst other everyday stimuli, but it becomes difficult to offset the stress when not. Instead, we tend to focus on a quest for similar discordant ideas, in an attempt to confirm, explain or expand upon our fears. Unchecked, this can even lead to the development of irrational phobias.
Long-term “house arrest” is a huge headache and risks turning many of us into long-term recluses; perfectly happy not to engage with fellow human beings in future. For all of us, however, our freedom and our freedom of speech might feel profoundly torn apart. We are at risk of being coerced and radicalised by social media and even, at times, by the mainstream media. Both are being whipped up to report on sensation or heartbreak rather than to convey any reliable, factual news from which we can then form our own, rational views and opinions.
Fuelled by misleading propaganda, people are instead becoming suspicious and beginning to turn against one another; ratting on neighbours who go outside to wash their cars while being “locked down” or sneering and tutting at people who accidentally follow the wrong arrows in supermarkets. I even dared to help a middle-aged woman recently, who had collapsed on the pavement in the throes of a heart attack. It was shocking to have been held back by an indignant crowd of onlookers and told “Don’t go near her - she might have the virus!” Tragically, she died. Does she feature in the tally of victims attributable to SARS-CoV-2, I wonder?
Sanctimonious behaviour like this is becoming frighteningly commonplace. As George Orwell observed, when we all distrust one another, there is little risk of concerted action or discussion by those who wish to explore or share any truths. Instead, the fearful turn on each other like cornered rats. The tendency is also to turn, blindly, to our masters for support. As well as these obnoxious patterns of disrespectful conduct, I am also becoming aware of people, particularly teenagers, starting to display the repetitive types of physical behaviour more commonly exhibited by bored or distressed animals in zoos.
Deprived of their spiritual comfort, individuals are becoming even more swiftly subservient and fearful. Lacking in succour at their greatest time of need, some people, particularly the elderly or vulnerable, are finding that maintaining even a basic level of morale is challenging. It must be deeply troubling for those with senile dementia not to understand why their families have suddenly stopped coming to see them, for example.
We all spend years forging our social and psychological support networks. For anybody, it is unsettling to feel that our duty is now to suppress the important connections which we have nurtured, for fear of being labelled as an antisocial loser or a “#Covidiot”.
The lack of eye contact or even a smile, now hidden by a mask, can be particularly dehumanising; as is being shiftily swerved away from by others as they struggle to digest their own angst. While difficult to acknowledge, this illusion speaks more about the perpetrator and should not be taken as any reflection of ourselves.
The abrupt denial of physical contact with people is also profoundly unsettling for those on their own. When worry becomes a habit, however, full-blown anxiety or depression can easily become a predator on our minds. An irrational fear of death or even a basic loss of self-control are highly corrosive activities, which are also far more contagious and damaging to our wellness than the most virulent virus might be.
All of these negative pressures need not prevail, however. Given time to reflect and a few ground rules, all of us can evolve with good humour and resilience. The first essential element is to keep a firm grip on one’s self-respect and personal administration. There is no reason not to be awake by 7 o’clock and out of bed, breakfasted, washed and properly dressed shortly thereafter.
Now is not the time to give in to body odour, facial hair, comfort feeding or to drift about all day in a dressing gown. If it is customary for you to take trouble over your appearance, and to gain pleasure from this, why let a good habit slip? It will be much easier for you to fire up your social engine again in future, if you don’t completely mothball yourself now!
A session of reasonably challenging physical exercise is vital each day, as is a similar mental challenge. A routine quarterly osteopathic tune-up should also be a priority as unusual numbers of hours sitting in positions which are less than ergonomically perfect will take their toll. Backaches, headaches and many other physical symptoms all tend to float to the surface at times like these. The social muscle is also very much one that needs to be exercised, lest it wither. We should all be able to find at least one new interest or skill to hone when in confinement and this will give us a well-deserved sense of pride in achieving.
Learning another language, attempting some art, music, academic study, hobbies, cooking or many other rewarding proficiencies should all fill several formally allocated hours each day. Other distractions such as yoga, a podcast or even a crossword, will also help to reduce the danger of destructive over-thinking and intrusive rumination. Moreover, one should always have a good book ticking over in the background. What are you reading at the moment, I wonder?
As already outlined, it is all too easy to become overwhelmed with other people’s opinions and neuroses. It is also straightforward for spurious misinformation, based on equally shoddy statistical evidence, to run wild when one is worried. Fear of any particular disease can thus have many more dangerous consequences than the disease itself.
Social media is a particularly fertile setting for this and should be restrained to an absolute minimum. Either limit it to x many minutes a day or confine it to one outlet or specific time slot (e.g. mornings only). Although convenient and easy to flick on or off, virtual companions are a poor and dangerous substitute for physical ones.
Within two or three hours of bedtime, it’s usually much better to avoid any media or internet input whatsoever. This applies particularly to text or email messages. Television and radio current affairs programmes can be similarly disruptive at any time of day. Much better is the managed digestion of a decent newspaper or, better still, a properly written weekly news magazine instead.
A respectable everyday routine, perhaps based around formal mealtimes, is another good way to contain irrational fears and retain a sense of purpose and proportion. With specific landmark rituals in place, the rest of the day can easily be structured appropriately alongside.
On emerging from hibernation and acclimatising to our “new normal”, we must remain alert to the dangers of panic, overstimulation and fearfulness. Messages may easily seem too confusing, noises too loud, traffic too fast and other people far too busy, lazy, rude or demanding. It will be important to view any unfamiliar challenges with a sense of proportion and perspective rather than becoming exhausted by them.
Whatever else happens, we must all resist the temptation to continue avoiding other people and places. In future, we would all do well to resume exploring new ideas and aspirations too. Living dangerously, just occasionally, certainly has its place alongside keeping safe or alert. Focussing on values such as pragmatism, generosity, decency and compassion are all things which we, as a nation, have excelled at historically and must not neglect now.
In summary – be kind to yourself. As with all those struggling in parallel, each of us can only do our best.
Finally, as the Royal College of Psychiatrists recently announced, it is not unusual for people to feel the urge to talk to walls, plants or other inanimate objets d'art, at times like this. Do seek professional help, however, if they start to talk back...