Managing health anxiety in the time of coronavirus

In times of great uncertainty we need to shift our attitudes to battle our anxieties. Taking on this new attitude will take time, practice and more time. Small steps. One at a time.

By Hal Musazlioglu 11th May 2020

Photo by Camilla Carvalho

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Hal Musazlioglu

Person-Centred Therapist


For anyone already suffering from health anxieties, a viral epidemic that makes our towns and cities look like scenes from B-Zombie movies, will be a challenge. For many, this is put mildly.

There are indeed a whole raft of reasons why this can be pretty serious: when we are anxious, our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol, so we can act accordingly in fight-or-flight situations. Once it’s over, our bodies revert to our normal setting and we start to relax again.

However, when someone is continuously stressed or anxious, the body will continue to release cortisol without it ever finding a release. As a result, we’ll have surplus levels of it, which is detrimental to our health: it can weaken our immune systems, bring on obesity, diabetes, muscle weakness and can also lead to memory problems or depression.

But it really doesn’t have to get to this stage. As a therapist I’d approach this in two steps:

1. Acceptance
2. Bringing your awareness to the scope of what is actually in your hands to change

1. Acceptance

I wholeheartedly invite you, dear reader, to accept how testing and challenging these times are: people are getting sick, many die, you cannot be sure you won’t catch it; if you do, will you be able to keep your family safe; how long will this go on for; will your money last until then and when will they find that pesky vaccine already… so many questions and uncertainties!

Life’s a challenge at best, but now we’re in these unprecedented times of a global viral epidemic.

This is important: another symptom of anxieties is that they remove us from our present reality. As a consequence, we lose perspective and are hence much more prone to feel overwhelmed.

So yes, do accept that currently, we’re collectively in a state of limbo for an uncertain amount of time. You’ll also have to accept, that there is no way around this other than going through it day by day.

Indeed, oddly, we might even get used to this. Some bright spark once said: “normality is cultural”.

Then inevitably comes the question: ‘So now what? Where do I go from here?’

Now, one key subject that’s repeatedly explored in my therapy work is the subject matter of boundaries. The serenity prayer usually attributed to Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is spot-on:

” Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

This is important: another symptom of anxieties is that they remove us from our present reality. As a consequence, we lose perspective and are hence much more prone to feel overwhelmed.

When we focus though on the current situation as it is, we can start to draw a boundary from the things we cannot change and focus on those we can. Which brings us to point two;


Photo by Jandro Saayman

2. Bringing your awareness to the scope of what is actually in your hands to change

Now, I treat all of my clients as the free, adults that they are. I tell them, as I now tell you dear reader, that you are free to make the choices you deem good and right for you.

You are absolutely free to make the choice to worry, to give in to your anxieties and go along with your scary thoughts e.g. you’ve caught the virus, have infected others and that your days are numbered.

You can decide to go along with this, this isn’t even the question. The question instead is: why would you?

What would it actually change? How would this help you cope? How would this improve your (health) anxieties? How would this improve your life? Your future?

Ask yourselves if you had thoughts at the back of your mind in the line of: “I’m anxious about my health, that’s it, nothing will change, I might as well not bother”?

Just because things have always felt sickly and anxious to you, does not mean they will continue to be like this for the rest of your life.

You’re welcome to prove me wrong, but I cannot for the life of me see any logic here.

Fact is: just because things are currently uncertain, does not mean the writing’s on the wall.

Just because things have always felt sickly and anxious to you, does not mean they will continue to be like this for the rest of your life.
Remember the old adage: your past is not your destiny.

For now, you don’t know. So stop assuming the worst already and focus on the what is as opposed to the what if.

As an example, and to also highlight the sheer perniciousness of health anxiety, I invite you dear reader to a brief cognitive exercise:

Imagine you wake up one day in a plain room. There’s no door, only one tiny window with metal bars. Just that little cell of four, plain, white walls you woke up in. You also don’t know how you got there, but there is a way out. So, how do you get out of that room?

Easy: stop imagining yourself in it.

Yes, I know I started the exercise by asking you to imagine it. So what? Especially us as members of the LGBT+ community, we will have already, and are likely to continue to have a whole raft of people telling you to imagine all kinds of things. Will you follow suit every time what they, or indeed you yourself tell you to?

“I’m sick, I’m fat, I’m stupid, I can’t do this, I’ll be single till I die? I’ll never have friends, I’ll never make it?” They say jump, you say how high?
I sincerely hope not…

That’s the way out: you don’t have to believe every thought that crosses your mind. It doesn’t matter where that thought comes from, be it from strangers, supposed friends, members of your family, or indeed from you yourself. You don’t have to go along with it.

I annoyed many clients in my therapy sessions when I told them that they themselves are the main creators of their anxieties.

That’s precisely the point of meditation: remember, there is a meditation app called Headspace. You decide which headspace works best for you: you either choose the one that traps you (just like a moment ago), that makes you feel sick, anxious or low; or you choose one that gives you peace, a break from everything and indeed an endless space where you find a safe refuge and lets you leave whenever you want to.

So, the next time you think you’re sick, see if you can cut your GP some slack. Maybe these new symptoms you're noticing are simply the byproduct of certain habits that may have been exacerbated by the lockdown.

Maybe your lower back pain doesn’t mean it’ll give out any minute and you’ll soon be paralysed but might just mean you’re in your mid-forties.

It’s fine to be in your mid-forties. It’s fine to have a bit of a gut. Yes, even if many people out in the scene or various magazines tell you otherwise. If your GP told you you’re all-in-all healthy, especially once you up your veg intake, then you’re good enough.

Indeed, the major challenge for you is going to be to learn to live with the uncertainty of it all, which is perfectly natural: we all want to know where we’re at in our lives. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said it perfectly:

”The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”

Yes, you don’t know where you’re at right now. This will soon change. But for now, stop assuming the worst. Nothing has happened yet. Indeed, what you fear, might never happen. You worrying about it won’t change much, other than increase your stress levels.

And yes, taking on this new attitude will take time, practice and more time. And you’ll get it wrong. That’s all fine, don’t kick yourself. Small steps. One at a time. All you lack is practice. Just keep going.

So, see to get friendly with the idea of not knowing. Learn to trust the universe, conserve your emotional energies and practice being emotionally present in the here-and-now.


Photo by Emma Simpson

It is the only moment where you can implement and actualise change, so:

  • Plan your days, make lists either for work or for whatever needs sorting/fixing around the house (you know there always is…).

  • Maintain your social circles: we’re now allowed to meet friends and family provided we’re socially distanced and are meeting outdoors, could you catch up with old friends, members of the family?

  • We’re also allowed out for proper exercise, so go for a sprint around the park, or when it’s rainy;

  • Consider investing in a snazzy treadmill or other exercise equipment if you're able to, it would also be a perfect way to recreate the “fight” response by letting out aggression:
    o you’ll have lower cortisol levels,
    o higher levels of adrenaline and oxytocin (which in turn will elevate your mood too) and
    o you’re likely to sleep better. Get it!

  • Meditate: set a time every day where the house is silent, or where everyone shuts up for an agreed time. Try to focus simply on your breathing. Practice keeping your attention there – you’ll find this a blessing in situations of anxiety, where you’ll eventually be able to snap into mindful-mode. It’s also another excellent way to release cortisol. Use either already mentioned headspace app, or Calm.

  • Especially after your GP has already confirmed you’re healthy, do not go online for any further medical health checks! Instead:

  • Eat healthy: remember, you’ll be under lock-down for several more weeks. Hence, go easy on carbs and sugars, also to maintain stable moods and energy levels; up your intake in veg, fish, protein – but treat yourselves on the weekends to avoid binging the rest of the week.

  • Focus on the things that are in place, like in doing a gratitude list, e.g.:
    o you having a roof over your head,
    o you having enough food,
    o you living in the 6th wealthiest country with - still –
    o one of the best healthcare systems.

  • Seek to help others: you’d be surprised the huge difference in other’s lives you can make by just a few moments of attentive listening, just a few empathic words or a few shared life experiences. Once you’re aware of your ability and your own value of having made such a positive change in someone’s life, you won’t feel anxious anymore, trust me. Help others. It’s not always about me, me, me.

In closing: seek to leave that anxious headspace by being present in the present. You decide how much you elevate your fears into anxious chapters of your life.

There’s always a different way of viewing things, remember: don’t be constantly up in your anxious head, so you don’t lose perspective – or even worse, your sense of humour!