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Fionola Meredith

Why panicking is the worst response when it comes to dealing with coronavirus

Fionola Meredith


Fear is a virus which can rob us of our own common sense - don't let it take control, says Fionola Meredith

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People panic buying has been evident during this crisis

People panic buying has been evident during this crisis

People panic buying has been evident during this crisis

We are currently in the middle of a global panic attack. In a matter of days, the world as we have known it up until now has disappeared, and has been replaced with a new, alien reality.

Streets are emptied, flights are grounded, borders are closed. Thousands of jobs are wiped out overnight. Sport tournaments and music festivals have been instantly cancelled.

Supermarket shelves are ransacked for basic items. The elderly and unwell are ordered to stay at home for months on end.

Political leaders speak ominously of a war against an invisible enemy, and the news has become a relentless litany of doom.

Is it any wonder that people are frightened?

Fear is everywhere right now. The normal human response to dread is to seek comfort from the company and support of others. Communal experiences, clubbing together. We are social animals after all.

In particular, the reassuring touch of another person is enormously soothing to a jittery, overburdened nervous system.

But we can't even do that , because we're supposed to keep our distance from one another, to prevent the spread of disease.

The people who are really suffering - apart from those who have the most serious form of Covid-19, or those who are at marked risk of becoming dangerously ill - are those with anxiety disorders.

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems, and millions are affected. It's often characterised by feeling radically unsafe. Irrational worries go round and round in sufferers' heads like a hamster running on a wheel.

They are plagued with obsessive 'what if' thoughts. What if this happens, what if that happens, how will I cope? For some, it may now feel as if their worst fears have been realised.

The problem is especially acute in Northern Ireland, with our grim legacy of Troubles-related trauma. The damage done to this society may be hidden away in people's minds and bodies, but it is severe. We have the highest prevalence of mental illness in the UK.

Neither is trauma restricted to those who have directly experienced terrible things. Tragically, there are many instances of trans-generational trauma, where the suffering is unwittingly passed on to children, and children's children, showing up in the form of addiction, violence, illness and depression.

To have the additional anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic, on top of existing psychological problems, is a heavy burden for afflicted people to bear.

So if you're overwhelmed by thoughts of catastrophe, what can you do? I'm no expert, but I've learned a few self-grounding strategies along the way.

Most important of all, breathe. Obviously you're already doing that. But if you're anxious, your breath is probably high and tight, stuck somewhere under your collarbones. I mean really breathe.

Slowly in, right to the bottom of your lungs, then a long exhale out. Then again, and again. If you practise this several times a day, the body will gradually start to calm down.

The rational parts of your brain, which go offline when you're in a panic, will begin to come back. You'll be able to think straighter, and be in a better position to reframe your worries.

The main thing to remember, which can get lost amid the apocalyptic messaging, is that for most people, symptoms of coronavirus will be mild. It may be unpleasant, but you'll live.

Neither is the bug an automatic death sentence for the elderly and the unwell. A sense of proportion - not to mention a sense of humour - can be the hardest things to maintain when you feel under threat, but they are vital.

It's probably a good idea to stay away from social media, where hysteria, wild speculation and overtly fake news is rampant.

It's amazing how the likes of @barry4532 and @randomgoat69 - or whatever they call themselves on Twitter - are suddenly world-class epidemiologists and self-appointed experts in infection control. If your head's already melted, eejits like this will only make it worse.

And, as Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar rightly advised, we should resist the temptation to compulsively check for online news updates. "Fear is a virus in itself," he said. "Constantly scrolling on your phone or obsessing with the latest developments isn't good for anyone."

We are living through feverish times. Panic is not the answer, however. It never makes a bad situation better, and quite often makes things much worse.

Sensible precautions are necessary, to protect the most vulnerable in society. But don't let other people's fear rob you of your own common sense.

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