"Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. An important implication of this definition is that mental health is more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities.
Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community."
World Health Organization
In the wake of the physical pandemic that is the coronavirus lies a much less understood and acknowledged pandemic, an emotional pandemic.
The negative impact of prevailing circumstances on our emotional and, by extension, mental well-being cannot be overemphasized. We are in unfamiliar territory and as such face unprecedented uncertainty.
One of the ways this uncertainty will manifest is through heightened levels of anxiety. Never in history has there been such a universal trigger for anxiety.
The world is a global village, with social media and international news networks, none of us is insulated from the fear this pandemic presents.
On March 31, the BBC published an article highlighting real-life incidents of how anxiety is impacting people exposed to the 24-hour reporting around the coronavirus. An excerpt from the article reads as follows:
Sam Johnson, who's 26 and from Manchester, says it was following the news that caused him to have a panic attack recently.
"I felt like I was struggling to breathe. I tried drinking water, taking deep breaths but nothing was working, so I called my friend and she thought I was having a panic attack," he says.
What Sam Johnson went through is a reality facing many people today. It is not unique to people with chronic anxiety, we shall continue to see many cases of acute anxiety emerging around us.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a mental and emotional reaction to stressful stimuli. Technically it is intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Fast heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating and feeling tired may occur.
Anxiety limits our ability to carry out everyday functions and respond to day to day situations. If not properly managed, anxiety can be a gateway to serious emotional and mental challenges.
Since this pandemic leaves us so susceptible and vulnerable to fear, panic and anxiety, here are a few practical measures we can take to cope.
It is important to stay informed about what is happening so that we are able to play our part in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus.
That being said, we must acknowledge that fake and sensational news is thriving in this environment. Such news only serves to increase fear and panic.
As such, make sure to only tap into news and information from credible sources. As a rule of thumb, avoid nondescript blogs and websites.
Unlike mainstream media outlets, they don't take the trouble to fact check the material they publish. Remember, that not everything forwarded to you on WhatsApp is true or factual. Just like your hands, sanitize your newsfeed of lies and falsehoods that will only make you anxious.
Secondly, manage the amount of time you spend consuming news. Being constantly tapped in is an easy fall trap since many of us are staying at home with easy access to TV and social media.
This can easily be counterproductive, by fueling our fears rather than keeping us informed. How much time is healthy, really depends on the individual. Observe how your news consumption patterns are affecting your moods, as a predictor of what "too much news" might look like for you.
If you find yourself particularly overwhelmed by the news, it might be necessary to shut it off altogether. If this is the case with you, identify a reliable person who will share with your important updates and information that requires your attention.
Finally, be wary of sharing information willy-nilly. Each of us has the responsibility to verify the information before we spread it. Make use of fact-checking websites such as Africa Check. Just like we have roles to play in slowing down the spread of coronavirus, we have roles to play in limiting unnecessary fear and panic.
Human beings are social beings. We are hard-wired for connection. Loneliness exacerbates anxiety and depression. Therefore, you must find ways to circumvent the physical isolation many of us face today.
Call and chat with friends and loved ones as often as possible. As you do this, make sure your conversations are not dominated by discussions about the pandemic. After all, the goal is to enjoy each other's virtual company. Shift your conversational focus to other things going on in your lives.
Take care of yourself. There are numerous ways to do this, including having a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and meditating.
Statistically speaking, you will very likely have a life to live after the pandemic is over. Avoid excesses of all kinds and find innovative ways to relax and unwind during these difficult times.
Focus on what is within your control
During times of massive upheaval such as these, there are so many things that are beyond our control. For example, we have no individual control over how long this pandemic will last.
Whilst this is a difficult reality to accept, if you focus on questions whose answers are unknown and circumstances you cannot control, you will be left drained and anxious. Shift your focus to the things within your control and the part you can play in managing the spread of the virus.
It is only natural to worry about the many scary possibilities out there. It would be helpful to list these possibilities down and match them with appropriate solutions and/or reactions.
The solutions don't have to be perfect. Your objective here is to stimulate your mind to be more proactive in anticipating and dealing with the negative spin-offs of the pandemic. Remember, this is a working plan, so feel free to step away from it, if you feel overwhelmed. You can always come back to it later.
List down all the negative outcomes of the pandemic you can think of e.g. "I may lose my job" or "I may lose a loved one". Once your list is exhaustive, read it over and over again.
On the surface, this might seem like a difficult, if not emotionally brutal exercise. What it will do, however, is strip the words in your list and by extension the realities they represent of their power over you.
This will not only reduce your anxiety but also empower the inner you to begin to think about said outcomes in the event that they come to pass.
In conclusion, remember that your mental well-being is as important as your physical health, be a jealous custodian of the same.