Fostering a feeling of community by checking on friends and family, and finding ways to help others, may stem stress during the coronavirus pandemic, mental health experts have said.
With almost hourly updates on the spread of Covid-19 published online, the barrage of negative news is increasing anxiety among some members of the public.
Regular handwashing and social distancing may help to protect us from the virus, but other measures can preserve mental health during an uncertain time when jobs, finances and loved ones are at risk.
“Anxiety can be a helpful and protective emotion, and is a response to threat or danger – it can also become counterproductive and damaging if it is excessive or prolonged,” said Tanya Dharamshi, clinical director and counselling psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai.
“The current coronavirus pandemic will be a significant cause of concern for many people, but for those who suffer from acute anxiety, it could exacerbate their condition so it becomes more debilitating.”
The World Health Organisation has issued its own set of guidelines and advice for staying mentally well as governments around the world battle to contain the largest public health threat in a generation.
So far, there have been more than 7,000 deaths from about 185,000 cases of coronavirus in a global population of almost 7.8 billion people.
Although doctors expect the number of cases to rise as more tests are done, more than 77,000 people have recovered.
WHO suggested that offering to help vulnerable people can have a positive effect on reducing stress, as can honouring health workers fighting the pandemic on the front line in hospitals, clinics and airports.
“Turn your attention towards those most in need, particularly those most at risk,” Ms Dharamshi said.
“Providing help and support to others where you can will help shift focus away your own worries and concerns and, in turn, help reduce anxiety levels.
“Even a phone call to reach out and connect brings a feeling of community care.”
A constant flow of information can be overwhelming, particularly for those most at risk from the virus, including the elderly and those with existing health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
Free and easy access to information, often unvalidated or verified on social media, is fuelling feelings of stress and anxiety, experts warned.
“It is important to keep updated with reliable information from the government and official health organisations about preventing and managing the infection outbreak,” said Ms Dharamshi, who speaks to families and individuals to help manage stress.
“However, exposure to non-stop news and social media can exacerbate stress and worry because of the constant barrage of information and statistics.
“It can cause severe emotional and physical distress and go on to affect a sufferer’s daily functioning.”
She suggested those who were feeling particularly fearful and overwhelmed could ask a friend or relative to provide regular, filtered updates.
“It is more important to keep up to date once or twice a day with news related to helpful government advice, or the direct impact on local amenities such as flights, schools and health services,” Ms Dharamshi said.
That advice has been echoed by the WHO, which has released a set of guidelines to protect public mental health during the crisis.
Not referring to those with the virus as “victims” or “diseased” can help limit the spread of fear, while avoiding watching, reading or listening to news if it causes anxiety is also recommended.