Wednesday, 15th April, 2020

A panic disorder sufferer’s guide to keeping calm in the time of Coronavirus.

One of the strangest things about panic disorder is that what triggers one person will barely concern another.

For instance, I have a long-standing fear of flying. It’s an irrational fear and one that most of my fellow passengers find hard to understand. To be frank, a lot of people are pretty dismissive, telling me to pull it together or spouting facts about airline safety.

The thing is, it’s an irrational fear. I once took a flying lesson in order to get over it. And guess what - I loved every minute of it. I was nervous but in a positive, rational way. It was an amazing experience and I immediately wanted to sign up for more. However, three weeks later I boarded a bog-standard 737 and was a wreck.

Mercifully, Coronavirus hasn’t triggered my amygdala (so far). I’m pretty stoic about the whole thing, a bit like a frequent flier during a, particularly turbulent flight. However, I have noticed that a lot of my friends and family are having a bad time right now, so I want to share my experience in dealing with panic. I’m not a clinician, so caveat emptor, but I have lived with panic disorder for over 15 years, so I hope this is helpful.

First, it’s very, very important for you to know that it’s ok to be not ok. You are not alone, a lot of people are feeling lost right now, including people who have never previously experienced mental health challenges.

You may feel, as I do when flying, embarrassed. Don’t waste a second worrying about this, because the people that matter don't want you to feel this way, even if they don’t understand what you are going through. It may take friends and family time to appreciate your situation - this might not come naturally - so if it's helpful, show them this post. And sod anyone who tells you to man up.

Next, it’s important to recognise whether your fear is rational or irrational, or more likely, a bit of both. Coronavirus is serious. Unlike flying, we just don’t know enough about it to gauge how to assess it as a threat. But panic is rarely a useful response and panicking about things outside your control – an outbreak in Seoul, Italy’s lockdown or the Irish government’s response – is irrational.

"First, it’s very, very important for you to know that it’s ok to be not ok. You are not alone, a lot of people are feeling lost right now, including people who have never previously experienced mental health challenges"

That said, irrational fear is still fear, and in my own personal experience no amount of ‘hard facts’ help. What does help is the following – physical exercise, mental exercise and meditation,

It is very hard to have a panic attack after doing fifty sit-ups. The body simply doesn’t have the energy. The problem is, when panic attacks, exercise is the last thing you want to do (because you need the energy to panic). With this in mind, pre-exemptive exercise is key. Walk, run, lift weights, hoover the carpet… but spend that energy or your amygdala will spend it for you.

Mental exercise I would define as whatever is the opposite of watching Netflix. Be it work, playing video games or hanging out with my daughter, filling the mental space that would be otherwise occupied by my anxieties is crucial.

On a plane one of the toughest things I find is that there is no outlet for my mind. So I talk to the passenger next to me, and if I explain my predicament, they are usually super cool and keep me occupied as my monkey-brain comes to terms with a flight. So talk to the people around you, tell them how you feel, and let them help you occupy your mind.

Far better than keeping your mind and body is meditation – download Calm or Headspace and commit to making time to work on your breathing and clearing your mind. This is easier said than done, and I’ve had a lot of stop/starts learning to meditate over the years. It takes time to get used to and you need to keep it up, but it’s transformative if you can commit.

Finally, turn off the news. Breaking news appeals to our monkey brain, which desperately tries to make connections and establish patterns in an uncertain world. Each ‘alert’ gives us a little hit but makes us none the wiser. Turn it off. You can get more than enough information by tuning in once a day to the ten o’clock news. Turn off the noise, breathe and let the people who love you know how you feel.

Stay safe. Be kind.


This article was originally written for Op_n -  a free mental health service