After more than a year of restrictions and paranoia about the killer virus in our midst, it’s only natural that people are still feeling a little anxious about Covid-19.
But some people aren’t just a little anxious – new research suggests one in five may have ‘Covid-19 anxiety syndrome’, where they’re locked into a state of continuous anxiety and fear of contracting the virus.
The research, by London South Bank University ( LSBU ) found one in five of 286 UK-based survey participants scored highly on the Covid-19 anxiety syndrome scale in February and used forms of coping such as a constant attention to threat, worry, avoidance and excessive checking.
Fear of catching the virus meant 54% of those surveyed strongly endorsed avoiding public transport, 49% avoided touching things in public spaces, 38% tried not to go out to public places, 14% paid close attention to others displaying possible virus symptoms, and 9% strongly endorsed reading virus news even when they were supposed to be working.
“These people are locked into a state of fear or anxiety about the virus,” says study leader Professor Marcantonio Spada, professor of addictive behaviours and mental health at LSBU.
“It doesn’t seem to be the case that being vaccinated makes a huge difference to whether they pay attention to the threat or disengage from it. But if they continue like that, it might be difficult for some to get out of it.
“Things are getting better with the virus now, but what will happen in October or November if we get new variants and it’s the flu season – will those ways of coping re-emerge? That starts to change society deeply.”
So how do people get out of this ‘Covid-anxious’ frame of mind?
1. Use positive messages
Spada says messaging from the media and the government needs to move less towards threat and more towards things getting better, stressing that infection fatality is very low for vaccinated people. “That will reduce the underlying fear,” he says.
2. Consider therapy to change thinking and behaviour
“Behavioural interventions where people are helped in a graded way to do what they used to do and find out they’re going to be okay will help,” says Spada.
He explains that cognitive behavioural therapy is aimed at interrupting worry, rumination and checking, where people’s attention is retrained so it can switch more readily from threat to other things in the environment around them.
This can involve learning to interrupt worries, making sure the internet isn’t surfed all the time, and not reading the news compulsively and looking for dangerous new information.
“These are things that we can do gradually to help people get back to normal, which is what we’d do in therapy for anyone who’s had a difficult time,” he says.
3. Take it slowly
Dave Smithson, operations director at Anxiety UK, says people who are still extremely frightened of catching Covid should just take things slowly. “Take it one step at a time and don’t rush it,” he says. “If you’re still feeling anxious even if you’ve had your jabs, it’s understandable.
“For a year we’ve been told to stay protected, stay at home, don’t meet people, and now it’s almost ‘it’s okay, you can go out again’. But it isn’t okay, there are grounds to be careful and still see the danger.”
4. Do what makes you feel comfortable
If wearing gloves and taking hand sanitiser out with you, or whatever precautionary measures you like, makes you feel more comfortable, then still do them, advises Smithson.
“If doing it reduces your anxiety and allows you to go about your normal business, and get back on the train to go to work or whatever, then do it. Do whatever minimises your anxiety.
“Doing the things you used to do without even thinking about it is going to take some time.”
5. Respect other people’s views
While some people want to get back to normal life as quickly as possible, others, like those suffering with Covid-19 anxiety syndrome, aren’t, says Smithson, and it’s important that you respect other people’s feelings about the virus.
“Some people want to crack on and say it’ll be fine, but others don’t feel like that – and whatever camp you sit in, you should recognise, understand and appreciate other people’s views and be patient with them.”
6. Be careful with news and social media
For many people, the news about Covid is increasingly positive and reduces their anxiety. But if you’re not among them and the news that people are still being infected increases your desire to stay isolated, then it may be a good idea to avoid the news if you can.
“If you’re among those who allow news reports to increase your anxiety, take it in small chunks and maybe just listen to one bit of news a day and avoid it, and social media, the rest of the time,” suggests Smithson.
7. Explain how you feel
If you still don’t feel ready to start socialising when it’s permitted, tell people, advises Smithson. “Say ‘Sorry, I just don’t feel comfortable yet, can we arrange to meet when I’m feeling a bit better?’
“Just do things slowly and gently, and ease into it until your confidence builds up. It’s understandable that there’s still some anxiety because there is still a risk.
“Some people might need professional help if it continues, and people still feeling anxious is something that shouldn’t be dismissed, but it can be overcome in time.”