Anxiety or COVID? Advice from Someone with Medical Anxiety

One cannot downplay the seriousness of the situation. We have a novel virus spreading like wildfire among our communities right now in addition to all of the normal and other decidedly not normal stress in our lives lately.

Along with the risk of the illness itself, we have a public that at least partially refuses to help. Younger people think they are essentially immune to a disease that threatens older people or those with underlying conditions. Boomers, being far more active than previous generations at their age, do not realise that “older people” includes them. Testing is not widely available and numbers are higher than what we’ve seen. It’s a problem.

It’s a unique problem for those with anxiety. COVID is serious and a real threat to our lives, yet we also do not know much about it. The lack of testing, information, resolution, or even path forward is cause enough for anxiety.

Perhaps worst of all, COVID symptoms share an uncanny resemblance with routine cold symptoms for some, with the flu, with seasonal allergies, and with anxiety itself.

So how does one manage anxiety in times like these? Here are some tips I can offer.

For those unfamiliar, I have a history with several forms of anxiety: generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic disorder. Medically, I battled the fun combination of exaggerating my symptoms to the point of hypochondria out of fear that things were more serious than they were and a near-debilitating fear of doctors’ offices and hospitals. If something were wrong with me, I did not want to have to seek treatment. It meant being poked or cut or pumped with drugs that made me feel awful.

Another ironic twist: my anxiety stressed my body and worsened my immune response, so in addition to feeling physically unwell due to anxiety I was also often physically unwell due to minor ailments like seasonal allergies.

How does one manage to separate the matters? How else does one manage the situation?

1. Onset – It occurred to me that one of the best tests is the onset of the symptoms. While some diseases have a sudden onset, many of the more common conditions have a more gradual onset. One feels a little off and then gets worse over several hours or days. Anxiety just appears. I know having anxiety can feel like a constant state of unwell, but try to track the appearance of specific symptoms.

2. Assume it is and is not anxiety – If you are a person with anxiety, then you already have anxiety. 100% diagnosis. You may or may not have the other condition in your head. Unless the thing is a medical emergency that may require immediate attention (e.g. the belief that you are having a heart attack), assume it is anxiety and begin using tools to manage that first. Alternately, such as with COVID or the flu where contagiousness is an issue, assume it is the condition and follow recommended protocols to avoid spreading it to others in the meantime.

3. Anxiety symptoms are real, physical, and self-inflicted – I do not mean the self-inflicted bit in an accusatory sense. During periods of heightened anxiety the body enters fight-or-flight mode, preparing the body to take action. That action involves stress, and that stress causes physically symptoms. Feeling light-headed or dizzy? The culprit is likely not a medical condition but the fact that you are clenching your jaw. That pressure is causing the light-headedness or dizziness. Sick to your stomach or nauseated? That is the mind-gut connection at work.

Naturally one of the obstacles to overcoming anxiety is that anxiety causes the symptoms which you then consciously interpret as confirmation of a problem (thus worsening the anxiety in a vicious cycle), but take a moment to let the anxiety be. Accept the anxiety and focus not on “Just relax” but rather one specific body parts. Is your jaw unclenched and relaxed? Are your arms relaxed? Sit with good posture and imagine the knot in your stomach physically unravelling. The anxiety will disappear calmly with that as the symptoms dissipate.

Anatomy of a Panic Attack

4. Anxiety is sudden onset, sudden offset – Related to the last two points, anxiety cannot linger. That is a biological fact. One might recover a bit and then cycle into another episode, but the body will only support that heightened state for a brief period. Much like monitoring to see if symptoms appear suddenly, when relaxing body parts try to monitor the symptoms to see if they alleviate as quickly. This is another sign of anxiety. If the culprit is the flu or allergies, no amount of mindfulness is going to cause the symptoms to disappear suddenly.

5. Talk about anything else – I recommend this as anxiety advice in general. During an episode where your anxiety feels out of control, talk with someone if you can about anything except the anxiety. Your impulse will be to talk about how you’re feeling because it’s at the vanguard of your mind. Once the other person is aware of the anxiety, it might be all they want to discuss (and they tend to do it poorly).

Talk about anything else. Talk about the pattern in the wood grain of your furniture. Talk about that celebrity trending on social media for no good reason. Put your mind on another subject and use the other person to keep you engaged on that subject. After just a few moments the anxiety will start to ease as your strip your mind of the stimulus causing the fight-or-flight response.

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