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CommunityHealthMental HealthPanicking over Covid-19? Keep calm and carry on instead

As hysteria, fear and panic over Covid-19 have turned so many cities around the world into empty ghost towns, it seems many people have also abandoned common sense and logic. Although the need for caution cannot be overstated to protect the elderly and other vulnerable individuals, experts in the field of mental health are warning the rest of us that we also have a duty to be level-headed – not only to set an example...
Caline MalekMarch 17, 202014 min
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CoronavirusA member of Istanbul's Municipality disinfects the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Istanbul to prevent the spread of the COVID-19/Photo by Ozan KOSE/AFP

As hysteria, fear and panic over Covid-19 have turned so many cities around the world into empty ghost towns, it seems many people have also abandoned common sense and logic.

Although the need for caution cannot be overstated to protect the elderly and other vulnerable individuals, experts in the field of mental health are warning the rest of us that we also have a duty to be level-headed – not only to set an example for children and others in general society, but to maintain our own emotional wellness.

“The mass hysteria exists because people are not well-informed,” says Dr Thoraiya Kanafani, clinical psychologist and clinical director at the Human Relations Institute and Clinics in Dubai. “There is a lot of information out there being disseminated on social media that is stirring up more panic and anxiety than necessary. It is definitely important to be vigilant and safe, but the more informed a person is about the reality of the virus, the less stress they will experience, leading to less panic.” 

The ones we most need to be concerned about are the most at risk group: people over 60 with pre-existing medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, cancer and diabetes. The symptoms of Covid-19 are not life-threatening to the rest of the population, although exposure to others should still be minimized. And here’s an important point: many people simply don’t know how much power they have over their own immune system. 

“The increase of stress, panic, and anxiety can have damaging effects on the body by suppressing immunity,” Dr Kanafani explains. “The increase of cortisol due to stress responses can have detrimental effects on a person’s health and ultimately, the collective health of their family and community.”

The current situation is inherently stressful, but we can and should be more responsible about how we respond.  

“It is important for people to be safe and take the necessary precautions. But they also need to stop catastrophizing and exaggerating the situation,” she adds. “Follow the advice given by the expert authorities and stay away from panic and beware of advice from unreliable sources.”

In fact, allowing fear to dictate our thoughts and actions can be even more detrimental to our health than any virus, as it trickles down to others. Energy healers and wellbeing experts, including Deepak Chopra, have publicly stressed the importance of continuing to lead a healthy life amid the turmoil. 

“If we approach this moment in time unconsciously, we will all act in ‘survival mode,’ fight or flight mode, and that is a very hostile way to live, internally and externally,” says Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director at Lighthouse Arabia in Dubai. “If we come at this calmly and collectively, we can help each other and overcome this with grace and courage. It is so important for us to remain calm, grounded, and consciously kind.”

She quotes Martin Luther King, who said that “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but how he stands in moments of challenge and controversy.” As people shift into ‘survival’ mode, it increases anxiety and a state of panic. 

“It makes you more self absorbed, less concerned with others,” she explains. “Your attentional focus becomes narrow and you only detect danger.”

Unpredictability, not knowing what the future holds, as well as a lack of control, are some of the main drivers behind this fear, making it increasingly difficult to remain in the present moment and collectively leading to a hostile world. Rely on trusted primary sources for information, such as local governments, the UAE’s state news agency, Wam, and the World Health Organization (WHO). Do not buy into the frenzy of images and rumors sweeping through WhatsApp groups. 

“Some people’s defense mechanism against anxiety is to seek control through information,” explains Dr Afridi. “It doesn’t work and only makes you more anxious.”

As well as taking sensible precautions, it is just as important to stay grounded both in mind and body, using the situation to get back into practices such as yoga, meditation and aromatherapy or to take them up. 

Protecting and bolstering your immunity is also crucial. 

“You might not be able to avoid the virus, but you can have a body healthy enough to fight it,” says Dr Afridi. “Get enough sleep, exercise and eat immunity-boosting foods. The goal is to strengthen the body to fight and reduce the stress, which weakens the immune system.”

The media also have a responsibility to alleviate panic and fear among people and to report only accurate facts. To date, almost half of the global cases of the virus have recovered, according to worldometer, a website which tracks all confirmed cases of coronavirus and deaths worldwide and by country. 

“Unfortunately, some media channels have gone too far in talking about the risks and the likelihood of deaths from this epidemic,” says Bahar Wilson, founder and mindfulness teacher at Mindfulness UAE. “The result is creating fear and stress, which damage the wellbeing of our community. Fear is spreading faster than the disease among our communities.”

She explains that part of the vital importance of our health and wellbeing is recognizing the effect on the wellbeing of our community and the world at large, for we are all connected. 

“Wherever our attention goes, our energy follows, and when you put your attention on fear and negativity, your energy will be consumed by it and you are more vulnerable to attracting it and feeling powerless,” Wilson says. “Meditation and stress management will reduce body inflammation, as mindfulness and self-compassion help the body go into homeostasis. Focusing on healthy emotions, being more compassionate towards ourselves and others instead of fear is important.”

She names meditation as the “best method” for calming the mind and avoiding anxiety about the future. “The most important thing is practicing gratitude for what we have in this moment and connecting with our body.”

Pem Fassa, owner of The Hot House in Abu Dhabi, says rumors have spread faster than any virus, creating a state of irrational fear, hysteria and division. 

“At the start of each class, I announce precautionary measures we take following the WHO guidelines and we also ask clients to refrain from coming to practice or being in close contact with others if they are not feeling well, irrespective of this virus,” she says. “But classes are still busy and I feel people find comfort in talking to others and in exchanging information on what is being reported.”

Fassa is trying to focus on healing, centering and acceptance, themes that are all much-needed in a time of crisis. 

“There is a sense of coming together even at a time when we are being advised to keep a safe distance and avoid public spaces,” she says. “With the mandatory school closures, I feel the frustration and disappointment from parents and teachers whose holiday plans are now a distant memory. This virus has had an impact on every single person, business sector and industry. My advice is to take things day by day, breathe deeply when fear and doubt arise, and be okay with what may or may not happen.”

Caline Malek

Caline Malek is a freelance journalist, based in Dubai, who writes about current affairs across the Middle East. Spirituality, health and meditation keep her balanced.

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