The anxiety surrounding Coronavirus

Thursday, 12 Mar 2020

I suppose to be consistent with every media outlet I should write about Covid-19 – just to add to everyone’s anxiety! Toilet paper aside, the World Health Organisation’s advice to the public can be found here: (this link adding to the various links sent the other day). The Australian Government also has a dedicated Coronavirus Health Information Line, which operates 24/7: 1-800-020-080. 

By now, everyone will be aware that this has been declared a worldwide pandemic. ‘Declaring a pandemic has nothing to do with changes to the characteristics of a disease but is instead associated with concerns over its geographic spread. According to the World Health Organization, a pandemic is declared when a new disease for which people do not have immunity spreads around the world beyond expectations’ (Guardian, 12 March).

It is highly advisable for parents and students to vaccinate for flu more generally. (There is no Covid-19 vaccination at this stage). Information about vaccination including people who are eligible to receive the vaccination for free is on the NSW Health website.

Rest assured that certain College Board members and the leadership team are meeting each week to review our processes and procedures for dealing with this issue and, as stated in the letter that went to all families via email and Skoolbag, we are taking advise from many departments. We are also working on ways in which we may continue to deliver education were the government to close schools and are also communicating with the other Jewish schools. My understanding from a BBC report yesterday is that all visitors to Israel will be quarantined for two weeks which will disrupt many families’ plans for Pesach.  

The sense of having no control over this calamity is obviously causing great anxiety. In Johann Hari’s international best-selling book ‘Lost Connections: why you are depressed and how to find hope’ he lists many ways in which we have become ‘disconnected’. He says we have come disconnected from meaningful work, from other people, from meaningful values, from childhood trauma, from status and respect, from the natural world and from a hopeful or secure future. He also lists ways in which we can reconnect in each of these areas. 

In one section (disconnection from meaningful work) Hari references how those who enjoy a high degree of control over their work were a lot less likely to become anxious, depressed or develop severe emotional distress compared to people working at the same pay level, with the same status, in the same office as people with a lower degree of control over their work.

Similarly, in a not dissimilar parallel, I think one of the reasons for the great anxiety surrounding the coronavirus is that we seem to have no control over it nor the impact it is having on us and our communities. As is evidence in the videos we are seeing on television, this is making many people stressed and anxious. There is something particularly absurd about stockpiling toilet paper and there is something particularly irrational going on that may be attributed to sheer selfishness driven by panic and a mass psychology which I don’t pretend to understand. 

Healthy Place says “Anxiety is often related to a sense of control; anxiety can be caused by a lack of a sense of control in one or more areas of life. This lack of control can cause a powerless feeling in the face of fears and worries. The lack of a sense of control can leave us feeling anxious, worried, or fearful when we don't think we should be. When you feel a vague, nagging worry, tension, edginess, or irritability but, frustratingly, can't identify a reason, perhaps the anxiety is connected to sense of control.”

It is not surprising that so many people are becoming irrational as one’s ability to exert control diminishes. People seem to be redoubling their efforts to stockpile while not giving rational thought as to why they are stockpiling. It also underscores just how individualistic some people are and how non-communally minded some people have become as they forget any notion of communal responsibility or sharing.

I can only imagine how the current Coronavirus news bombardment and excessive focus is making children feel anxious. Media reports would just about have us believe that each person who contracts the virus will die. When scanning the online media reports 80% of all articles relate to coronavirus.

There are so many existential factors out of our control that make us feel anxious. And think for a moment about how these factors coming into our lounge rooms, various media platforms, radio etc are impacting on young people. The bushfires over summer were a very good example of us all having no or little control over this. The existential threat of climate change similarly would make young people feel anxious. (Which is why as I have mentioned previously we all need to make the smallest change to help us feel in control to some degree).  

In the middle of this Covid-19 anxiety-inducing time we all need to consider where we can increase our sense of control. What small measures can we take to gain more control? (Most of these are outlined in the Department of Health brochures). And perhaps identify where we can choose to let go to help us downsize our worry list about this.

‘Shenpa’ is a Buddhist concept that involves letting go, distancing ourselves from a thought, feeling, or person/event in the outside world. Buddhists describe it as being ‘hooked’ which is apt. Anxiety and its symptoms hook us. Fear hooks us. Worry hooks us. When we're being hooked, we feel powerless. Anxiety, it seems, is being done to us, and we have no sense of control over being hooked by something or someone. However, we're not powerless. When we notice ourselves feeling anxious and tense, we can pause and look at why we're hooked. What has reeled us in? That knowledge can help us reduce the racing thoughts of anxiety and regain a sense of control over our own thoughts and emotions.  We don't have to remain passive victims of anxiety, at its mercy with no control.

At the moment, the news is all about the crashing stock market, ‘mass school closures and industry shutdowns’, diary of an intensive nurse, ‘corona virus a shambles’ (Headline on 11 March), countries shutting down etc. It is very gloomy. We have to be prepared and realistic but we also have to ensure our kids are not made anxious by this constant exposure and are made to feel that no matter how small, they have a semblance of control. 

Byline: Phil Roberts, Principal at Mount Sinai College.

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