As COVID-19 continues its hold on the population across the world, I wanted to write about the struggle in coping with pre-existing psychological illnesses amidst a pandemic—a pandemic in which uncertainty, isolation, and an obsession with hygiene all play a role. For those already suffering with certain conditions, everyday life is like this, at the best of times. However, now, these things are suddenly imposed on all of us, in one way or another. No community is immune to the life-altering effects of attempting to control such a virus.
There are people who are experiencing unimaginable pain and stress at the moment, and it is impossible to reduce that experience to a digestible article. I am someone who is lucky enough to have a home to self-isolate in, with family or friends to speak to (albeit from a distance). However, I wanted to offer some thoughts on what I am familiar with. I do not think the psychological impact of our current situation should be underestimated by anyone. I have witnessed the people around me adopt new behavioural patterns that lead me to emphasise the mental effects of coping with a situation so threatening. It affects us all. Those with anxiety will know that the combination of uncertainty and feeling out of control heightens all symptoms. The human imagination is powerful, and not knowing one’s own future for certain increases its capacity for creating panic-inducing images and thoughts. No matter how much we look for certainty in the form of government advice, statistics, and media coverage, we cannot truly attain it; this leaves us feeling afraid and powerless.
Hygiene measures have, understandably, become an extreme priority. Once the virus is under control, people will be able to return to their usual routine cleaning habits. Sadly, the threat of illness will become a constant for those with the predisposition for a condition like contamination OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Now, the threat is real, but one can imagine that it will pass. For OCD sufferers, the line between real and unlikely threats blurs greatly. The constant insistence on handwashing—in particular, the right kind of handwashing—feels comparable to a recovering alcoholic being encouraged to drink.
Another parallel I wanted to discuss is isolation. Isolation from the outside world and an inability to socialise are just a couple of the countless consequences of depression. Having no plans, feeling purposeless and, therefore, lacking hope for the future inevitably results in a low mood or, later, despair. Fear of leaving the house or being in enclosed spaces due to a range of perceived threats are both typical facets of agoraphobia.
I know I am not alone in finding parallels between the current state of the world and my own mind. This limited life that we have been asked to live—temporarily, it must be emphasised—has been normality for some of us, for years.
But there is always hope. We must comply with government advice to protect our communities. Although it feels like this advice mirrors the debilitating experience of living with a chronic mental or physical health condition, it is survivable. Be proactive in using anxiety-reducing techniques. Wash your hands for 20 seconds only, not obsessively in response to intrusive thoughts or until it feels ‘right’. Exercise and get some air and find something that you know will reliably lift a low mood. The painful, potentially unfamiliar emotions you are experiencing now will have been felt, fought and overcome by sufferers of numerous conditions. If you are struggling, speak to one of them; they will be an expert. They know that these feelings are not insurmountable.
Edited by Ketki Mahabaleshwarkar
Images painted by Alice Mansfield