Catastrophizing, anxiety, and COVID-19

During globally unsettling times such as these, we might think that the suffering of those with mental illness can only become more intense. Even for many of us without pre-existing mental health problems, coronavirus anxiety has become an issue, as a quick Google search will show. However, there is a group of people with conditions related to anxiety who have reported a paradoxical relief from their symptoms during the present crisis.


In March of this year, journalist Jon Ronson tweeted


These reports about a rise in anxiety: I wonder if some other fellow long-term sufferers also feel weirdly calm.


17,000 likes and 1,700 retweets later, Ronson was clearly not alone. He elaborated in a podcast, highlighting why his anxiety has been strangely subdued. Suffering with anxiety for most of his life, he describes being subject to ‘catastrophising’ – a term for a thought-process in which the worst possible outcome takes precedence. Ronson states that he would call his wife, and if she weren’t to pick up, it was clear (to him) that she had tripped, fallen and died. As a result of this thinking process, catastrophic events, such as global pandemics, are constantly being rehearsed as ‘what if?’ scenarios; and so, he speculates, it was as if his anxiety disorder had been preparing him for the present crisis. Ronson (half-jokingly) calls this an evolutionary advantage. It seems as though, for some sufferers from anxiety, the habit of catastrophising has allowed them better to equip themselves psychologically for this current pandemic.


Fellow anxiety-suffering tweeters expressed a ‘I feel that too’ sentiment following Ronson’s remarks. They offered several reasons. Some believed their suffering to be better understood in the public consciousness, as more people experience increasing pandemic-related stress levels. The lived emotional experience of those suffering with anxiety is no longer felt to be as exclusive – but is now seen to be shared with others.


There is a sense of ‘welcome to our world’ at work. For others, it was a shift in the pace of life. Fewer deadlines and fewer responsibilities means more time reflecting or simply resting. Or it was a result of there being fewer people on the streets; for those suffering social anxiety it may become easier to increase their exposure to the outdoors. Certain pressures in life, whether occupational or relational, it seems, have been lifted, and with that comes a sense of liberation.


Perhaps there may be lessons in this for society to learn about the hows and whys of the experience of anxiety? This is not to propose that there is some silver lining – simply that it is worth learning from the wide varieties of experience of the pandemic.

Some online resources around anxiety

If you are concerned about yourself or someone you know, these may be of help:


NHS helplines


anxietyuk.org.uk -- a charity specialising in supporting those with anxiety. These pages give advice concerning coronavirus.

Mind – general information and advice for mental health problems

Young Minds – mental health information with the emphasis on children and young people

Vinay Mandagere, medical student, University of Bristol

@vinaymandagere

Sources:

https://twitter.com/jonronson/status/1238478402342080512

https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/stories-of-our-times/id1501716010?i=1000468741361

https://twitter.com/hettieholland/status/1254036113880203265

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/29/coronavirus-lockdown-anxiety-mental-health

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