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How to manage OCD and anxiety amid the coronavirus

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Focus on the facts, not the speculation

The charity No Panic, which helps people living with phobias, OCD and other anxiety-based disorders, told us that helpline calls and emails have jumped by 20 per cent since news of the coronavirus broke.

Professor Kevin Gournay from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at Kings College Hospital in London is president of No Panic. To reduce worry, he recommends curating your news sources and avoiding social media where possible.

“Focusing on the worst-case scenario only stops you enjoying the present moment,” he says. “Coronavirus does lead to deaths in a small proportion of the population (the mortality rate is currently at 3.4 per cent) but this is not Ebola or the Spanish flu.

“There have been 319 confirmed UK coronavirus cases among over 66 million people so far, meaning the chance of you catching it at all is currently minimal. Even if you did catch it, the vast majority of patients recover and many only experience mild symptoms.”

Professor Gourney blames “the proliferation of social media sites over the past decade” for the spread of panic-inducing rumours.

“News in all shapes and forms reaches many more people than it did 10 years ago,” he says. “Often, we only get a headline on our phones, which might be misleading and not give the whole picture. I would argue that if swine flu, which killed more than 200 people in the UK and infected thousands more, happened today, we would see much more panic than we did in 2009.”

He suggests reading the clear and informative coronavirus page on the NHS website, following Professor Chris Whitty (@CMO_England on Twitter), England’s chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser to the Department of Health and Social Care (@DHSCgovuk) and reading brief daily updates on the Government’s website.

Ashley Fulwood, CEO of OCD-UK, has experience of the disorder. He agrees that the media “all too frequently overemphasises the risks”, meaning professional advice becomes “open house to every intrusive thought OCD can throw at us”.

His charity has also seen an upsurge in support requests from people suffering from OCD who are experiencing an increase in obsessions in response to the threat of coronavirus.

“For many of our callers this is OCD rehashed in a new coronavirus-shaped fear,” he says, “but I have no doubt that the current emphasis on repeated hand-washing and avoiding shaking hands will lay seedlings for people yet to know the pain and misery of OCD.

“Many people, even those without OCD or health anxiety worries, have resorted to wearing face masks on public transport (which offer negligible benefits). That’s a fear-driven compulsion, but for now, at least, most likely won’t be at obsessive levels. But for those of us with OCD, we take things to a new level.

“Like with most OCD fears, there is a risk that’s relatively small, but OCD will inflate that to make it seem significantly higher than it actually is. The media are doing their best to scare us. Don’t let them or your OCD inflate the risk. Look at the stats.”

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