Understanding and coping with anxiety in a Covid-19 world


Profmed CEO Craig Comrie shares Dr Wilhelmina Erasmus's thoughts on the general state of mental health.

We’re so focused on the tug of war between our economic and physical health that our mental health has fallen by the wayside. There has been a noticeable drop in psychiatric claims despite telemedicine facilities being made available and covered by most medical aids.  We are concerned that people with mental illnesses are not consulting their doctors. It’s also important that we encourage our friends and family to seek professional health so they can get the support they need during this time.

Clinical psychiatrist and Profmed member Dr Wilhelmina Erasmus has consulted many South Africans during this time, especially frontline healthcare workers, and she is worried about the general state of mental health that too often takes the backseat.

As increased stress levels threaten to destabilise our mental fortitude, Dr Erasmus sheds some light on the power of anxiety and how we can cope in these uncertain times, saying the first step is to recognise the power anxiety holds in our minds and on our bodies. 

“When one becomes anxious, they can get panic attacks, become out of breath, develop heart palpitations, feel numb and even feel like they are about to die,” she says.

The physical impact of mental anxiety

She says anxiety releases cortisol into the bloodstream. This is otherwise known as the “fight or flight” hormone, which is designed to help us react to dangerous situations. Typically, and biologically, those dangerous situations are rooted in our ancient past and helped us deal with predators in the savannah. Today, this stress is unnaturally constant with unprecedented events like COVID-19 only amplifying the malaise of anxiety plaguing our minds.

“When this stress becomes too much, it overwhelms you to such a degree that the mental strain becomes physical with symptoms like headaches and body pains,” says Dr Erasmus.

She says anxiety also has a way of turning our daily lives upside down where you can no longer enjoy the things you used to and simple tasks like eating right and getting enough sleep are impossible to maintain.

Dr Erasmus says, “We need to start recognising anxiety in ourselves and in our friends and loved ones, because everyone has a threshold and nobody is immune.”

Everyone has a threshold

Dr Erasmus says that absolutely everyone is vulnerable to mental illness, especially as we all fall headfirst into the unknown. “You might never have shown any psychiatric symptoms before but I’m telling you that it has been building up and could be ready to burst,” she says.
She says we should all learn to understand when we have reached our threshold. “Once you go over it, trying to relax or sleep or do the normal things you used to do may no longer help you feel better. Before you fall into a full blown episode, it is important to find a healthcare professional to help you cope. Even if you are only slightly worried about yourself or someone you know, a conversation with a professional could be the most useful course of action.”

Our healthcare professionals are particularly vulnerable

If you or a loved one is a medical professional, Dr Erasmus urges you to understand that this line of work comes with a much higher risk for burnout. “On top of this, most medical professionals on the frontlines are isolated from their loved ones with nobody around to recognise when they are not themselves.”

She advised that medical professionals on the frontline must remain in contact with friends and loved ones whether it’s through a WhatsApp group or a simple phone call.

“These are the people that know when you are not yourself and can tell when you need support, or even an intervention.”
Laugh, even if you have to fake it

Studies have shown that when you laugh your brain releases endorphins, which in turn make you feel happier. Dr Erasmus says when you laugh, your brain doesn’t know if it is a real laugh or a fake laugh so it will release endorphins anyway.

“Stand in front of the mirror and laugh, but make sure that you do it every day,” says Erasmus. “You also have to find laughter. Watch a comedy, tell a joke, get tickled, and just laugh. Every little bit helps.”

Never forget that everyone is vulnerable and help is out there

In times of great uncertainty, Dr Erasmus says that every human being on the planet can become mentally ill. “We are all vulnerable to it where you are a doctor, a lawyer or a stay at home mom. The problem is that people only understand it when they have experienced it first-hand or a family member is struggling with it. That’s not good enough, especially as we live in a time where increased levels of stress threaten to destabilise everything we have accomplished so far,” she says.

Dr Erasmus says mental health professionals are ready to help and we should never be ashamed to admit that we need it.

“These are unnatural times, our healthcare workers have been working long hours and are exposed to situations of high pressure like never before. It is important that if you know someone who is a frontline healthcare worker, encourage them to seek help and speak to someone. Stay safe both physically and mentally, watch yourself and those around you because someone somewhere will inevitably need help,” she says.

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