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The Anxiety Virus COVID-19

March 11, 2020. Andy Horide, Osteopath

I have been resisting writing any articles on the current COVID-19 pandemic. As I have read more and more articles and watched various news snippets, I found myself increasingly wrestling with my internal monologue not to write anything. I could almost hear the Borg’s greeting of ‘resistance is futile’ ringing in my head (only Trekkies might understand that reference). 

As the Movement Project is trying to cover health-related topics and stop the spread of misinformation, I felt that I had to, in some regard, approach this subject. Of course, many news and informational outlets have done a great job at providing objective information and educating the public about COVID-19.

As always, the alternative online community has pounced on the opportunity to get more people reacting to their content by creating sensationalist and conspiracy-driven content. This has led to a vast amount of misinformation being spread on the internet, getting into every psychological crevice possible. 

‘creating sensationalist and conspiracy-driven content’

 As I’m not an epidemiologist or an infectious diseases specialist, I didn’t think there was much I could add to the plethora of information out there. Here are some of those sources: NHS, World Health Organisation (WHO), CDC.

I thought I would consider the situation from an anxiety point of view instead. Specifically, why being anxious or stressed is probably not helping and might be impairing the rational part of our brains. I will go over a few facts, hoping to demystify them and reduce stress. 

Anxiety or fear is entirely reasonable, especially to an external threat. This can keep us safe. As we walk around day-to-day in a calm state, our cortex part of the brain is more active. 

The cortex is responsible for spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language.  When our basic needs are met – like food and shelter – and life is good, we can perform more abstract thinking and reasoning, possibly helping give rise to our modern civilisation. 

In times of fear and panic, our brains dampen this region to allow the limbic system to dominate. The limbic system is responsible for motivation and emotion (amongst other functions). It also influences our autonomic nervous system; this by-passes higher levels of the brain to get the body ready for ‘fight or flight’. When our mind is working more on ‘instinct’ and emotion, we know that people don’t make good decisions. This is worsened by stress or a state of fear. 

We can see this at play in the news; we can see people panic buying and hoarding. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer are going out of stock everywhere. This isn’t because there is a shortage of these items. If everyone bought them as usual, there wouldn’t be a problem. Anxiety and fear have created a panic, leading to a problem. 

It is true that people who are chronically unwell (people who have respiratory problems, immune-compromised, diabetes etc.) may have more reasons to be concerned. We all should be taking precautionary steps to protect them, not just ourselves.

If you are healthy and are aged between 20-50 you are unlikely to suffer serious adverse effects from COVID-19.  

Precautionary steps include the main advice regarding washing hands, covering your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze, and self-isolating when you are feeling unwell. In my opinion, we all should do this when we get sick, even before the COVID-19 outbreak happened. 

Facts about COVID-19

Fact 1 – The mortality rate at the moment is 3.4% worldwide, this would seem worse than seasonal flu. If you break down this figure by country, you realise it’s very different for each country.

Some of these differences can be due to surveillance. Some countries only test the most severe cases, therefore the mortality rates in these countries are higher. Other countries test a lot more people even if they have just mild symptoms, this brings the mortality rate down. This is why experts are struggling to find out exactly how bad COVID-19 is.

So this figure of 3.4% may come down considerably as more and more people get tested. So don’t be worried if you see reported cases going up, a proportion might be due to increasing rates of testing. It’s just too early to accurately know the mortality rate.

Fact 2 – Approximately 80% of laboratory-confirmed patients have had a mild to moderate disease. This should give us some comfort as there are likely to be more people who don’t show symptoms and therefore are not tested. This would bring this figure up (from 80%), and lower the numbers for those who suffer severe effects from COVID-19. We could think of the disease as a big iceberg, with people being tested and confirmed right at the top (above water) and the rest are hidden and we don’t even notice them.

Fact 340-70% of the population will be infected. This figure came from Epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, he is one of the leading experts in the world in this field. This is a high number but with high margins. He has later tweeted a revised number of 20-60%. Once again, this highlights the importance of not getting too hung up on these figures as they are likely to change as more information comes out.

It’s best to think of these stats as educated guesses and worse case scenarios.

‘being anxious and fearful is not an effective antiviral’

My aim is not to belittle or trivialise the gravity of this situation. I want to reduce people’s anxiety in relation to COVID-19. Being anxious and fearful is not an effective antiviral. 

Try to check your news feeds on social media less. When looking for updates, check reliable and impartial sources of information. Consider national health websites only, like the NHS or WHO. There has been some great coverage on the BBC.

In my opinion, we need to be concerned and pragmatic but not anxious. There are some serious issues we are facing in fighting the COVID-19. Namely is our ability to treat/provide intensive care units (ICU) for people who suffer complications of COVID-19. When looking at the numbers, these ICU beds are likely to be strained in the UK. Therefore it is vital that we slow the spread of this virus so the emergency services can cope better.

We all can do this by washing our hands and following other mainstream advice given. Protect and support the people who are most vulnerable around you (people who are elderly, chronically ill). All the best. 

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