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Is the world on the brink of a mental health crisis, thanks to COVID-19?

This was supposed to be a good year for us.

Max had just started nursery, which meant we’d have more time – and hopefully more money. Business had started to slowly pick up again after a couple of particularly grim years –  mostly caused by the impossibility of working from home with a baby/toddler. On Christmas day, my parents surprised us with tickets to Florida for this spring. We were so excited. It felt like there was so much to look forward to: that there was finally some light at the end of the four-year-long tunnel we’ve been working our way through, and that, this year, things were going to be better.

Then COVID-19 hit, and suddenly all of that was gone.

This week, our local health centre was closed due to a confirmed Coronavirus case. This is the same health centre I’ve visited no less than 4 times in the last couple of weeks (After over two years of avoiding the place like … well, like the plague, basically. Trust us to only need to see a doctor at the exact time a pandemic makes it one of the riskiest places to be…), and it sent my already-spiralling anxiety through the roof.  That afternoon, when we picked up Max from nursery, we let them know he probably wouldn’t be back until things start to feel a little safer – whenever that may be. We asked family members who were supposed to be visiting that evening to stay away for now, and I went to bed early, my chest tight with panic, and my stomach churning with the most severe anxiety I’ve ever experienced. 

This is my life now, basically.

Coronavirus fears Right now, like (most of) the rest of the population, our lives are completely on hold – and while cancelled holidays and disrupted plans are obviously the least of our worries at a time like this, I’m finding myself worried, not just about the physical health of everyone at risk from coronavirus (So, everyone, then…), but for our collective mental health, too. 

Today, for instance, I’m writing this post with hands so dry and cracked from constant washing that it’s painful even to type. As a toddler mum, I already felt like I was washing my hands constantly: now, though, I can clearly see myself tipping into OCD-like behaviour with it – and also with the constant cleaning of door handles and light switches, the wiping down of surfaces, and the endless attempts to disinfect a toddler who’s hellbent on touching everything in sight.

At the pharmacy last week, I had a twenty minute wait to collect my prescription (The pharmacy being inside the same building that’s currently closed due to the risk of infection…), during which I tried in vain to not allow either me or Max to come into contact with anything. To anyone looking on, I must have looked straight-up insane as I chased around after him with my trusty anti-bacterial gel (Which, yes, I know isn’t THAT much use, anyway…), only for him to end up grabbing hold of a door handle (GERM KLAXON! GERM KLAXON!), then rubbing his hand across his face before I could stop him: at which point I almost burst into tears.

This is not healthy behaviour. I mean, even I can see that. What I can’t see, however, is how I can change it: how, under the current circumstances, I can find a balance between reasonable precautions and a descent into the kind of anxiety that is not easily “fixed”, and that is almost impossible to live with. 

And it’s not just me, either. 

For people with health anxiety, COVID-19 is confirmation of all of our worst fears. It’s the validation we needed to tell us that yes, we were right to worry. It’s the rest of the world finally catching up with us, and it’s the undoing of all of the work we’ve done towards keeping the anxiety at bay. For those who don’t generally suffer from anxiety, though, it’s almost equally scary: and that’s one of the hardest things about it.

For people with health anxiety, COVID-19 is confirmation of all of our worst fears. It’s the validation we needed to tell us that yes, we were right to worry.

Under normal circumstances, if I was dealing with a bout of anxiety, there would be people I could rely on to reassure me, and tell me that the risk was all in my head. This time, though, there’s no such reassurance: and when even the people I think of us unflappable are starting to admit that they’re panicking, you know you’re in trouble. 

So I worry: not just about catching COVID-19, but about how the pandemic will change us forever. I worry that the fear of crowded places and Other People will stay with us long after the vaccine has reduced our risk from the virus itself. I worry about how people will cope with isolation or lock-down: as an introvert who works from home anyway, I’m better placed than some to deal with the psychological impact of being stuck at home for days/weeks, but even I’m daunted by the thought of being separated from loved-ones, or of not being able to escape the four walls of my house – which has become claustrophobic enough after what feels like the longest winter on record. 

Are we on the bring of a mental health crisis due to Covid-19?I worry, but mixed in with the fear, there’s also a huge amount of sadness. I keep looking at the photos from this time last year (Which Instagram and Facebook helpfully insist on showing me…), and I can’t even comprehend the difference a year has made to the world. I look at my little boy – who remains totally oblivious to all of this, although I guess it’s only a matter of time before he starts to ask why he can’t go to nursery, or playgroup, or soft play any more  – and my heart breaks at the thought of all of the things he’s missing out on as we try to get through this period of uncertainty. His last day of nursery just so happened to be the first day he’d really seemed to enjoy it: when we went to pick him up he was busy painting a picture, and told us he wasn’t ready to leave yet, and, as we walked out of the building – while desperately trying to avoid touching anything in it –  I couldn’t help but remember the hope we’d had when we first took him there, back in December. It’s so sad to think that, just a few weeks later, we’re having to pull him out again: just a few weeks that have changed the world, and plunged us into a nightmare we just can’t seem to wake up from.

How are we supposed to cope with this, I wonder? How do we continue with life as normal, when absolutely nothing is normal any more, and even something as simple as a grocery shop is suddenly fraught with risk, and requires everyone to be sanitised as soon they get home? (I say this having just spent the last five minutes wiping down the groceries Terry brought home, while he hit the shower. Despite having suffered from health anxiety for most of my adult life, it’s taken this to turn me into a germophobe – and I can’t really see my way back from it either: or not without a HUGE amount of therapy, anyway…)

One of the problems here is that most of the usual coping mechanisms don’t apply now. Online, every time I see someone talk about anxiety or depression, for instance,  there will be a bunch of well-meaning responses from people urging them to seek help: to talk to a professional, to speak to their doctor, to ask for support from friends and family. That’s all well and good, of course, but right now my health centre is closed, my doctor is taking phone appointments only (With priority obviously going to those with serious physical conditions), and, if the current numbers are to be believed, our entire health service is about to be totally overwhelmed. 

It has never been harder to access help, and, the fact is, even if my doctor WAS open right now, the health centre is the very LAST place I’d be willing to go: partly because of the risk associated with a place sick people congregate (And yes, I know those with symptoms have been told not to go near their GP, but that message doesn’t seem to have gotten through, if the closure of our surgery this week is anything to go by…), but also because it feels wrong to take up NHS resources in the middle of a pandemic, in which people are actually dying.

And so I guess we wait. Because what else is there to do?

This is not going to be the year we’d hoped it would be: in fact, so far it’s been worse than we could ever have possibly imagined … and even if we all get through it alive, it’s hard to imagine life ever being the same again. 

How’s everyone coping?

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26 Comments
  • Kay
    March 13, 2020

    I’m sorry you’re feeling so anxious and can understand your fears to an extent. I have an 11 week old baby and while I read reassuring things about the virus and children, it never changes the worry. My partner is self employed and the Financial uncertainty is scary too (although I know nowhere near as important as everyone staying healthy)!

    As cheesy as it sounds, what has helped me a wee bit is trying to think of a potential period of isolation as an opportunity to be together as a family. To make and play and basically camp out together in our own wee (clean) bubble.

    Sending positive vibes your way, I hope you can find a bit of peace in this madness. Do what you need to get by.

    • Amber
      March 14, 2020

      Thanks, Kay: and yes, the financial aspect is such a worry too – I think a lot of people/ businesses are really going to struggle 🙁

  • Antonia
    March 13, 2020

    As I’ve said, I’m not (and I suspect you’re tired of hearing that now!) but I just wanted to agree vehemently with the germaphobe issue. This has really been worrying me; usually when I tell people I have OCD, they assume I’m a hand washer, but I never have been… until January when I started following this thing. Now I can feel the same compulsive behaviour attaching itself to that and I’m terrified of the ramifications long-term. I’ve always found my OCD is quite capable of taking a new compulsion and refusing to let it leave, EVER, and I really don’t want hand washing to be a Thing now. But I know it probably will be – one more anxiety fuel to deal with 😣

    Maybe some kind of online support group for folk with health anxiety would be an idea. I’m continuing to see my usual therapist via Skype, which I’m finding helpful, but that’s 50 minutes a week – and I’m obviously worrying a lot more than that.

    Finally, thank you for being so open. It helps, a little, to know I’m not the only one finding this absolutely terrifying – especially when I’m surrounded by people (metaphorically speaking) who either aren’t, or to my mind aren’t worried enough.

    Stay safe and all the best to all three of you.

    • Amber
      March 14, 2020

      Yes! I was actually thinking about some kind of
      Facebook/ Whatsapp group or something … I used to be in a few health anxiety groups, baby left them all because they were much too triggering, but I’ve been finding it quite helpful to speak to other people who’re worried about this – it would be good to have a space where we didn’t have to worry about being sneered at!

  • Emerald
    March 13, 2020

    Well, I have to admit I’m a bit more concerned than I was last week. I don’t want to be affected by Coronavirus because although I’m healthy, the radiotherapy treatment I had two years ago has made my breathing a wee bit laboured, plus the immune system takes a battering. I think all it would do to me is make me feel pretty vile though, which I can cope with.

    My main concern is with those who can’t handle it and may really suffer. What’s with this “I’m alright, Jack” attitude? (And grabbing more than you need at the supermarket?)

    Today I listened to a podcast about the psychological effects of this virus and the presenter made a great point: whether you’re totally unbothered about it or are very worried, that’s how you feel. You have a right to be so without being judged either way.

    • Emerald
      March 13, 2020

      Also wanted to add… I’m sorry you’re feeling sad about Max missing out. But little children are pretty resilient and there’ll be lots of other things that will make him happy while this business runs its course. 😊

    • Amber
      March 14, 2020

      I feel like there’s been a real switch in people’s thinking this week: I’ve noticed quite a few people saying they’ve suddenly become much more worried about it – such a difficult time 🙁

  • Christiane
    March 13, 2020

    Thank you for writing this. It puts into words how I’m feeling.
    My country is in lockdown – something I never thought would happened. Tomorrow the borders are closing. Another thing I never thought would happened.
    My anxiety is out of control and nothing helps. What will help (everything going back to normal and corona going away) is not going to happen for a while.
    I also worry about how it will change us and the world. I don’t like things changing. This is a new world and I don’t know how to act in it.

    Once again thank you for your post. Thoughts and hugs to you and your family.

    • Amber
      March 14, 2020

      I’m so sorry – it really is something we couldn’t even have imagined. I keep waiting to wake up and find out it’s not actually happening 🙁 Sending lots of good thoughts to you and yours , too 💗

  • PatinCal
    March 13, 2020

    The more you think about something, the more you think about something.

  • Jemma
    March 13, 2020

    I’m really not coping. I’m 38 weeks pregnant and, like you, I have anxiety anyway. I should be trying to relax in these last couple of weeks of pregnancy but my anxiety is spiralling. I just can’t believe I’m bringing a newborn into the world at this time. Thank you for writing this and making others feel less alone.

    • Amber
      March 14, 2020

      Ah, that’s so rough … I’ve been thinking a lot about people who are pregnant or have just given birth: it can be such a difficult time anyway without all of this added worry. I really hope everything goes well for you ❤️

  • Lynsey
    March 14, 2020

    I’m sorry you’re feeling this way – you might find this link helpful x
    https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/coronavirus-and-your-wellbeing/

  • Louise McDonagh
    March 14, 2020

    Hi Amber. Great post, and I think it echoes the words that most of us are feeling right now. I’m not an anxiety sufferer, and never have been, yet here I am on a Saturday afternoon when I would usually be enjoying the coffee shops of Scarborough, staying in my house away from it all for fear that I might pick up one germ! I had to get a bus the other day from the park and ride and spent much of the journey frantically trying not to touch anything, whilst gelling my hands constantly. These are far from normal times, and who knows what the outcome will be! Stay safe, stay healthy xx

    • Amber
      March 14, 2020

      I think a lot of people are feeling the same – it’s just such a surreal time 😥

  • Tom
    March 14, 2020

    Amber Honey, there are sooooooo many ways to die……are you terrified to ride your bike? Some people even put the toddler on the crossbar. The only thing scary about a virus is…..we weren’t to add yet ANOTHER way to the list

    • Amber
      March 14, 2020

      Tom:

      A) I’m not your “honey”: please don’t patronise me.

      B) If you genuinely struggle to understand why a pandemic is not the same as riding a bike, and why people with serious health conditions are concerned about it, there’s really nothing more I can say to you. Honey 🙄

    • Maria
      March 14, 2020

      “The only thing scary about a virus is” that is making people sick and worse than that, dumb Tom. Stop being a huge jackass and respect people’s fears. Also, we’re living in a global pandemia, so really, the only one who has to wake up is people like you.

  • Miranda
    March 14, 2020

    I’ve logged out of my social media’s for now as people are either not taking it seriously and making jokes or being the opposite and it’s making me feel unwell. I wake up every morning with a sick feeling in my stomach. But I’m feeling much better today, after 24 hours off SM xx

    • Amber
      March 15, 2020

      I think that’s a great idea. I unfortunately have to use social media for work, so I can’t avoid it completely or I’d try to do that too! (With that said, I don’t see our business surviving many months of this situation, so I may be able to avoid it after all 😩)

  • Jenna
    March 15, 2020

    I actually thought about you a few days ago. I don’t have any sort of health anxiety so I can’t possibly imagine how you are feeling. I’m feeling fine. I’m immunocompromised, but living with that everyday (and especially through a rough flu season this year), I’m perplexed by the people who normally don’t have health anxiety or health issues and how anxious they are acting. It’s a bit bizarre. I hope if you can stay home for a bit of time, it helps quell some of the anxiety you feel. I know it doesn’t really work that way, but I still hope.

    • Amber
      March 15, 2020

      It’s not just about health, though: I think the financial impact alone is enough to worry a lot of people (Many, many businesses and self-employed people are already struggling, then you have people on zero-hour contracts who won’t get paid if they can’t work due to a shut-down or isolation. Even if I wasn’t worried about the high-risk people I know, I’d still be feeling very worried about the fact that our business is unlikely to survive months of this uncertainty…) then you have the difficulties people will face if they’re forced to isolate (Not so simple for those who have dependants, or who are already vulnerable…), or if schools close and they have no one to look after their kids. Add in the uncertainty of plans being cancelled, borders being closed (Which doesn’t just stop people going on holiday, but also stops them seeing family, etc…), normal life being suspended indefinitely… It’s an unprecedented situation which most of us were unprepared for, so I’m more perplexed by people who can’t understand why others are worried, tbh: I definitely envy you, though!

      • Jenna
        March 23, 2020

        Ah, yes, I think I catch what you are writing. I just, walk around everyday trying not to get sick (I catch everything) and trying to keep my business afloat through my chronic illness (I am self-employed), so it’s bizarre to see other people start to care about these things they’ve never had to care about before. We will all feel the repercussions for along time I’m sure. I’m glad you are still writing and will continue to check in.

  • Marie
    March 15, 2020

    I really feel for you. You’re doing all the right things though, and you are an extraordinarily brave and resilient person, and hopefully life will get back to normal soon. Much love. X

  • Ginger
    March 16, 2020

    I get it. I don’t have health anxiety, but I also have been very upset by the number of usually chill people around me (mostly on social media) who have either totally gone bonkers or gone over to incessant posting of one topic or another related to this. I’ve unfollowed or snoozed more people in the last 10 days than I have in the last two or three election seasons, and that is saying a LOT. And despite all my efforts, they’ve managed to upset me a lot as well. I can barely imagine what it’s doing to you, too. I’m sorry. It doesn’t feel like it, but we’re all in this together. Different ways, and isolated physically, but we’re all dealing with this. It’s a new situation for us all.

  • Lori Burke
    March 21, 2020

    Dear Amber, It’s midnight here in So. California. We just completed our first 24 hours of “shelter in place” mandated by our State’s Governor. And I can’t sleep. I share your anxiety. This world has become terrifying in a matter of weeks. I don’t have answers, only the most profound fear. My 28 year old daughter is an Oncology nurse in Portland, Oregon. She is the bravest, strongest young woman I know. She called me last night in tears (and I can count on 2 hands how many times she’s cried in her life) because she’s so scared. She’s torn between fleeing her job, and the commitment she made to her patients. But with gloves,masks and sterile gowns due to run out 2 days from now and no knowledge of when they’ll be available… I can’t help her, get to her and I feel like I can’t breathe. Knowing she has asthma only increases the risks and worry. I want someone to tell me this is going to be okay, we are going to be safe, my child will not have to make a choice between duty, her love for her patients and her in life. Health anxiety is difficult always, now it is unbearable. Please stay safe, guard those you love and try to breathe. I remember to between the tears.