NHS worker Nathan O’Hagan, who has experienced issues with anxiety for most of his life, explores how people who never previously thought about feelings of unspecified dread are now having to contend with them because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
You stand at the front door, making sure you’ve thought of everything you need to do, everything you need to buy, to ensure you don’t have to stay out of the house any longer than absolutely necessary. You’ve already planned the route you’ll take, the one which is likely to bring you into contact with as few people as possible.
You step outside and check the street in both directions to assess how many people are about. If there are too many, you go back inside and wait until it’s a bit quieter. There’s nobody on the street, so you decide to continue your journey.
Walking along the street, you see someone approaching, so you cross over to avoid having to pass by them. A minute later, you see another person coming towards you, so you quickly cross back to the other side.
Reaching the shop, you’re grateful for the automatic door, as it means you don’t have to worry about touching a door handle. Picking up a shopping basket, however, you think about the number of people who have already handled it today and you wish you’d brought some hand sanitiser or gloves. You shop quickly, keeping as far from other people as you reasonably can, wondering, every time you pick an item off the shelves, how many times that item has already been fetched and replaced today.
Reaching your home, you close and lock the door, throwing your shopping down so you can rush to the sink and wash your hands thoroughly, while taking some deep breaths to calm yourself.
It’s not always this severe, sometimes it’s far worse. But this has now become your experience every time you leave the house.
And then, the Coronavirus hits.
The principle legacy of this horrific virus will of course be a death toll likely to reach into the hundreds of thousands, but a secondary impact will be the terrible affect it is likely to take on people’s mental health.
The thought processes described above are very much the norm for those of us who suffer from social anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder or contamination OCD. Carrying out basic day-to-day tasks like going to the shop can be fraught with problems and induce anything from mild anxiety to full-blown panic attacks.
It is something that can be very difficult for non-sufferers to comprehend or even take seriously. But since the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown on 23 March, many are experiencing it for the first time. People who have never struggled with their mental health are suddenly encountering feelings and anxieties that are completely alien to them; fears of contamination, either directly or via surfaces; a vague mistrust of other people.
All this is in addition to a massive upsurge in general stress levels across the board; fear about the ongoing uncertainty around the Coronavirus; concern for one’s health and that of loved ones; as well as huge financial uncertainty, which has always been one of the greatest sources of stress even at the best of times.
These feelings are always difficult to process but, for anyone experiencing them unexpectedly, they must be doubly confusing and frightening. Just as it may previously have been hard for any non-sufferer to comprehend how people with these disorders could feel this way over ostensibly straightforward actions, it may be hard for a long-term sufferers to imagine how unsettling it must be for someone in their 50s, for instance, who has never felt this way before, to suddenly be struck with a crippling anxiety that they don’t understand.
We are only in week four of lockdown, with at least three weeks to go, and no clarity yet on what will happen thereafter.
Anyone experiencing a sudden influx of these issues is likely to encounter an escalation of them as the weeks go on, and the continuing ambiguity will only feed into and perpetuate them. Worse yet, with people unable or reluctant to visit GP surgeries at this time, they may be lost about where to turn for help or support. So alien may these feelings be for some that they may not even understand what they need help for.
I’ve suffered from these issues for the majority of my life in some form or other so, when they hit, I have various coping strategies that I’ve learned over the years. The feelings of helplessness and desperation a person has before they learn these strategies should not be underestimated.
In my day job as an NHS theatre support worker, I’ve already seen firsthand examples of this manifesting amongst my colleagues. This is, of course, entirely understandable when we’re directly treating patients infected with COVID-19. But, as an OCD sufferer, I’m keenly aware of the differences between increased hand hygiene and behavioural patterns bearing the traits of obsessive behaviour. And it’s not just limited to colleagues in healthcare, where it might be more easily explainable. Anecdotally, I’ve heard accounts from several friends of occurrences of panic and anxiety, having never experienced them before.
These feeling won’t simply disappear overnight. That isn’t how they work. Some people will experience a natural reduction in them, but many will feel – at the very least – a residual amount, while others will struggle to shake them at all.
If this increase is happening now, with fewer people on the streets and limited numbers being allowed into shops, imagine how bad it could be when streets are full and shops are heaving again. That feeling of unspecified dread that is so familiar to many of us, but foreign to most, may well rise and I suspect that GPs will notice a significant increase in the number of patients presenting with these symptoms.
As well as the rise in social anxiety, there is also the lack of human contact to contend with. Although allowed to go outside, many people with preexisting conditions which make them vulnerable are choosing not to leave their homes at all unless it is absolutely essential. If someone in this situation lives alone, they may have no face-to-face contact with anyone for three months or more, other than perhaps a relative or neighbour dropping some shopping on the doorstep, leading to terrible feelings of isolation and loneliness.
I’m not suggesting for a second that the lockdown is anything other than the correct thing to do – in fact, I would argue that it should have happened sooner – but if you’re unable to leave your home for more than a few minutes a day, or not at all in some cases, the result is likely to be an increase in mental illness that even a video of celebrities singing Imagine can’t fix.