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Dealing With Health Anxiety As Lockdown Eases

For most people around the world, Covid-19 has been their first experience of pandemic-related health anxiety – and thank God for that, right? 

For me, however – and, I’ll bet, for many other health anxiety sufferers – this is actually the fourth time we’ve experienced the feeling that, OMG, the world is probably going to end. No, really.

There was the Bird Flu scare of 2006.

Then the Swine Flu in 2009.

Finally, 2014 brought Ebola: not to me personally, you understand, but I worried about it anyway. It’s what I do.

So, yeah, I’m an old hand at this whole, “Worrying you’re going to die in a pandemic,” business – and, if you also live with health anxiety, I bet you are, too. In fact, can we just take a minute here to say, “I TOLD YOU SO,” to everyone who ever doubted us? Because, OK, none of those other potential pandemics actually happened, obviously (In fact, when I mentioned them to my closest family members a few weeks ago, most of them had only the vaguest memories of them: which just goes to show how carefully they’ve been listening to ME, huh?) … but then this one did: and all of a sudden, we found ourselves thrown into our actual worst nightmare. 

(OK, maybe not the worst. My ACTUAL worst nightmare involves me waking up to find a selection of crustaceans in my bed, but that’s a whole other story, trust me…)

Dealing with health anxiety, by Forever AmberLiving through a literal pandemic has been a pretty strange experience for someone with health anxiety. In fact, it’s been a pretty strange experience even for people WITHOUT health anxiety, so you can probably guess what it’s been like for those of us who were anxious to start with, and then, instead of being told it was all in our heads, and that we should just stop worrying about it – which is what normally happens when health anxiety flares up –  were told that, actually it WASN’T in our heads, and that we we should totally try to worry some more. 

For the past four months, everything we’ve seen on the news, or been told by our governments, has served to validate our fear. My husband has received two separate letters, plus numerous texts, telling him that Covid-19 is such a huge risk to him that he shouldn’t leave his house – or, ideally, his room. Every day we’ve heard government advisers, scientists and doctors read out the death toll, and remind us to be scared of everything. Life has ground to a halt. We’ve washed our hands AND our groceries. Even the most level-headed of us have been encouraged to be terrified – and quite a few have succumbed. 

It’s not been a great time to have health anxiety, in other words: but, at the same time, it kind of HAS. 

For me, the first few weeks of lockdown actually brought some relief from the constant anxiety – and, OK, flat-out terror – I’d felt during January and February, as I tracked the progress of the virus through China and Europe, all the while feeling like no one around me was taking it seriously enough, and that we were all 100% going to die.

Those two months were actually the hardest part of this whole thing for me. The virus felt like a constant threat: I found myself worrying, not just about catching it myself, but about my loved-ones catching it, and possibly dying from it. I worried about what would happen to my son if Terry and I both had to be hospitalised. I worried about being stuck in hospital (Context: my irrational fear of hospitals), totally alone, probably in one of those plastic “bubbles” you always see in movies about infectious diseases (Context: those scenes in E.T. where the house is shrouded in plastic, because, reasons.), surrounded by people in hazmat suits, struggling to breathe, and knowing I was dying. Yeah, I was a TON of fun back in January and February: you’d have LOVED me, seriously. 

Of course, all of that seems more than a little bit ridiculous when you see it all written out like that. It’s genuinely how I felt at the time, though: and it’s why, once we were in lockdown, and the chances of any of these things actually happening were vastly reduced, I felt a whole lot better. 

Now, however, lockdown is all but over. The UK is slowly starting to return to something like normal. The pubs are open again – albeit with social distancing measures in place. Pretty soon, we’re going to be expected to get on with our lives, almost as if nothing happened, and we haven’t just spent a quarter of the year being repeatedly told we should be scared to death – and that, if we weren’t scared enough, then… well, literal DEATH.

It’s a pretty big ask, really – for some of us, at least. 

That’s not, however, to say that I’m sad lockdown is ending, or that I want it to carry on for longer: this isn’t one of THOSE posts. Because, the fact is, grateful though I am for the break in the anxiety, and the relative safety lockdown provided for us, I’m not one of the people who enjoyed it, and who would not-so-secretly have liked a few weeks more.

Actually, I hated every second of it. Every single one. I was safe, yes – but I was also bored, stressed, lonely – you name it. I have missed my old life so much that it’s almost felt like I was going through some kind of mourning process for it at times (Yes, I know that’s ALSO going to sound ridiculous to some of you, but… wait: why are you reading a post about anxiety anyway, if you think it’s so ridiculous? WHY, THOUGH?), and if I were to rank all of the years of my life in order, starting with the ones I enjoyed the least, I have absolutely no doubt that 2020 would be at the very top of that list. 

So, no, I will not miss lockdown one tiny little bit, and this is definitely not a plea for things to continue as they are. 

What is it then? 

It’s a request for a bit of empathy, I guess: for the people who are desperate to get back to normal, and who aren’t worried about catching the virus, to spare a thought for those of us who are dealing with a lifetime’s worth of health anxiety, or those who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, and who’ve spent the last 16 weeks being scared witless by healthcare providers, media outlets, and government advisers alike.

For some people, it’s going to be really hard to just file those messages under ‘Things That Are No Longer Relevant’ and push all of the fear we’ve been encouraged to have aside: especially when the death toll in some parts of the country is still pretty high, and we’re constantly being told to expect a second wave.

We don’t expect you to walk on eggshells around us, obviously, but we do hope you won’t be offended when we turn down your invitation to that social gathering, or take a few steps to the side when you stand too close to us, without realising. We’d really appreciate it if you’d give us some space and try to observe social distancing – even if you think it’s stupid, because you’re not scared any more. I won’t judge you for going to pub, or standing in line to get into IKEA – but, at the same time, I’d rather you didn’t judge ME for choosing NOT to do those things, or sneer at me for still being “scared” of something that – sorry – has been really freaking scary.

The fact is, we all have different levels of risk, and different coping mechanisms: we’re not all going to go through this at the same speed, or in exactly the same way. The very least we can do, though, is to get through it without constantly lecturing each other about how we’re doing it all wrong, and trying to insist that our way is the only way to pandemic correctly: which is what I seem to see happening every time I log into Twitter these days. On one side, there are people insisting that if you’re leaving your house at all, you’re a reckless Covid-19 spreader; on the other, meanwhile, there are people rolling their eyes and claiming that anyone who’s still scared is just a hysterical idiot. I just.. can we just NOT? Because while you’re all busy judging each other on Twitter, I’m just going to be over here worrying about the new bubonic plague – now, who wants to join me?*

(*I’m joking. Probably.)

The four stages of heath anxiety, as illustrated by the Coronavirus outbreak

My health anxiety story

11 things not to say to someone with health anxiety

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

9 things you only know if you have health anxiety

COMMENTS
  • Donna

    REPLY

    Yes! All of this. COVID-19 gave my OCD a licence. I was right all along! You should constantly wash your hands and disinfect your house. Oh, we’re not doing that anymore and you’re judging me again. I have literally just written something very similar in my newsletter. Everyone is dealing with this in their own way.

    July 9, 2020
  • Anita

    REPLY

    You see, I AM one of those people who’s gone back to the pub/restaurant/seeing friends and was delighted to do so. And all I seem to see is judgement. Yesterday someone told me I ‘obviously didn’t care about safety’ if I did those things- which is clearly ridiculous, because I’d likely have been run over by a bus by now if it was true.

    I didn’t force anyone else to do it, though, and I never would – but the judginess seems to cut both ways. I wish people could just live and let live.

    July 9, 2020
  • Mimi

    REPLY

    I’ve been suffering from horrendous health anxiety since last year…it got to the stage that I was so anxious I couldn’t eat & ended up seeing 14 doctors and undertaking multiple blood tests only to end up at square one; anxiety & depression.
    I was terrified of Covid since Jan too. It’s eased off but has been replaced by my old fears of cancer…
    Thanks for your posts x

    July 10, 2020
  • MYSHA

    REPLY

    You explained the same exact thing I’ve been going through for four months. Yeah and the bubonic plague, we are all stressed and here is another one , surprise !
    Already joined you I guess. We are all in this together.

    July 10, 2020
  • DublinerInDeutschland

    REPLY

    Inititally when the lockdown lifted here in Germany, I was delighted at the thought of being able to do more things again and for life to feel a little more “normal”. However, lately I have started to feel more anxious again. Some of my friends are meeting up indoors in pubs and restaurants again but I just don’t feel comfortable doing something like that.

    July 23, 2020
  • Sally

    REPLY

    You nailed it! Since lockdown has eased & hubby has gone back to work my anxiety has rocketed! Not just about COVID either, but the old favourites of DVT (actually a trapped nerve) and brain tumour (stiff neck from anxiety). Just generally a bit terrified at the mo! Hoping it’ll ease up a bit…until the schools go back, which will be a relief to wave the treasures off, but also second wave worries…

    August 4, 2020
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