Most of us are experiencing a range of emotions in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Feelings of fear, panic, sadness, guilt, uncertainty, anger and frustration are ever present.

Interestingly, some of us are happy and excited at the thought of a “vacation” handed to us. Some of us have also become hypersensitive and hypervigilant, panicking at the slightest sensation that mimics the symptoms of the Corona virus.

We appear to be drowning in a sea of emotions that rapidly changes across the course of a single day. What you feel is real, natural and normal. It is not a sign of weakness and many people around the world are experiencing similar feelings. Accepting and naming the emotion you feel or are experiencing is the first step in overcoming the anxiety associated with the Corona virus.

As humans, we constantly scan our environment for threats that we perceive may interfere with our safety/survival. We attempt to be in control by being aware and controlling things that might interfere with our safety. Circumstances that evokes a sense of lack of control and uncertainty, therefore, may seem overwhelming and lead to negative emotions such as anxiety and depression. Basically, we develop routines to gain a sense of control over our lives. Any disruption in our routines usually interferes with our sense of control and safety and causes us anxiety.

Essentially, when our safety is threatened, the human mind and body gear up to challenge or “rise up to” the threat in a process known as the “fight or flight reaction” or more casually, the humans go into survival mode. This process although not physically visible, sparks up a range of reactions. Notable among them is the pronounced beating of the heart which is an adaptive feature that enables more blood to fill our muscles for them to gain more strength and rigidity to stand and “fight” or to “flee” the threat. The complexity is that, whereas an actual threat situation can evoke the “fight or flight” reaction, an imagined threat evokes the activation of the “fight or flight” reaction too. Invariably although we may be able to escape or overcome a physical threat and thus deactivate survival mode, imagined threats may cause us to be in survival mode for very long periods without us even noticing.

Although short term anxiety may have positive effects, continuous anxiety has significant negative effects on physical and mental wellbeing. For example, the bout of energy that prevents us from sleeping because we need to prepare for a test in school, a presentation at work or ceremony is actually positive as it keeps us alert and focused to achieve our goals.

On the other hand, long term anxiety and emotional stress has effects on the muscles, digestive system as well as the immune system. Simply put, long term anxiety suppresses the functions of the immune system which we must avoid aggressively in this Covid-19 circumstance.

Our minds can cause us to be in episodes of anxiety which are largely unnecessary. For example, it is no accident that we get emotional when we watch a movie that saddens us, neither is it by chance for us to experience fear when we watch a horror-themed movie. The simple explanation is that our minds are able to create, in significant detail, what we think about. In that sense, a thought pattern of negativity will only activate your survival mode even though it is imagined. By this explanation, negative thoughts lead to negative emotions while positive thoughts will lead to positive emotions and outcomes.

There are a few things that we can do in this Covid-19 era to protect our psychological wellbeing and by extension our physical wellbeing. Firstly, let’s be aware of the fact that the disruptions in our routines send signals to the brain of something being wrong, which the brain would usually code as a danger in order to call on the body’s defences.

Developing new routines and schedules gives us a sense of control and reduces our anxiety. Practically, draw up a new timetable of sleep and wake times, meal times, catching up with friends and family etc. For example, use this period to start that project you’ve postponed over and over like working out and losing some weight. Gradually being able to follow these routines and making progress on them will give you a sense of control that empowers you and reduces feelings of hopelessness.

Secondly, staying in touch with friends and family has a positive effect on your affective health, research shows increased levels of the “feel good” hormone oxytocin from physical and social media interactions. In as much as we try to reduce physical contact in this Covid-19 era, the internet offers us another means to stay in touch and be connected. Establish routines for checking on and encouraging your friends and family using the various social media platforms.

Openly and honestly communicating your feelings in this period offers an avenue of release which enhances emotional wellbeing. The interaction also works to our advantage when we have our friends and family share their feelings with us also. What this does is to give us a realization that what we feel is normal and no different from what our loved ones feel.

It would be erroneous to ask that we are not worried in these times. Whereas worrying is a normal feeling especially in uncertainty, there are a number of things we can do to protect ourselves from excessive and unnecessary worry. Generally, the information you feed your mind, will determine largely how you will feel. It’s important to limit the amount of covid-19 information we consume on a daily basis.

Practically, give yourself time periods for worry and finding updates on the developments of the pandemic the world over from credible sources. In my opinion, limit the consumption of Covid-19 information prior to bed so your sleep is not affected significantly. If you feel the need to constantly look for news items on covid-19, analyze the trend of information and you’ll realize it’s pretty much the same information and it hasn’t changed much.

Finally, let us find appropriate distractions. We can do this by being mindful and intentional. We need to find which distractions work best for us. Watching movies, learning how to make a new dish, singing etc. may all prove useful for many. Exercising and being physically active not only boost our immune system, but it also has a positive effect on our mood by increasing the levels of oxytocin. For many of us, our minds have left the immediate present and have travelled to the future with expectations of doom mostly. We are therefore experiencing emotions we would experience in the future if what our minds have imagined come to past in the present. This type of anxiety makes it difficult to appreciate the present and makes us quite distant from the realities around us. Do take a step back, look around you and identify one thing in the present you can be grateful for.

For example, we could be grateful that, although we cannot physically see our loved ones, we can still keep in touch through social media. We could also look at the fact that we are still able to fellowship or get some work done through other means aside what we are mostly used to. Simply answer the questions, WHAT CAN I BE GRATEFUL FOR TODAY and WHAT CAN I DO TO MAKE SOMEBODY’S DAY BETTER? The answers to this question will give you a sense of control and ensure some radiance in this doom.

These are suggestions of a few things that we can do to combat the anxiety of quarantine. Remember! Because we are used to a particular way of life, making these adjustments may sound quite easy but implementing them is not as easy. Being consistent and persistent will offer the best outcome in the long run. Let us remember this is temporal and we shall overcome this also. 

If you however feel overwhelmed and unable to control your anxieties, do get in touch with a professional for assistance. I’m sharing with you also some phone numbers for free psychological help for people dealing with Covid-19 anxiety +233 (0)200009989, +233 (0)200009999, +233 (0)200009997 (A collaboration between Psycorps Ghana, Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, Mental Health Authority, Ghana Health Service).

About the authors

Seth Mawusi Asafo (Licensed Clinical psychologist, Ghana Psychological Council, Ghana Psychological Association. Lecturer University of Ghana Medical School)

Beatrice Dwumfour-Williams (Licensed Clinical psychologist, Ghana Psychological Council, Ghana Psychological Association. Lecturer University of Ghana Medical School)