Is it Covid-19 or anxiety?

For all the good that has come from globalization, our now smaller world is facing an unprecedented threat. Many people are now reporting a heightened sense of anxiety about COVID-19 – not only related to health fears of catching it, but also about the short and long-term financial impact to individuals, companies and nations.


Anxiety often causes people to feel generally unwell. Extraordinary media coverage has increased people’s general anxiety and health fears. It is now virtually impossible to escape or ignore shocking announcements on a daily, or even hourly basis about this virus. It is understandable that many might worry about anxious feelings, fearing that they have contracted COVID-19, which can lead to even more anxiety.

Anxiety is often related to not feeling in control of the events in our lives – and right now, may people feel out of control, and also that the world is not a safe place.

When we humans feel unsafe, we are wired to fear the worst, leading to sensations in the body we know as anxiety. Why is this?

By fearing the worst in unfamiliar or fearful situations, people are propelled to seek behaviours that will help to make them feel safe again. So, in a way, anxiety is a helpful warning system that compels us to do whatever it takes to feel safe again. In the case of coronavirus, this means taking preventative measures as advised by public and local health authorities to do things like washing hands, avoiding touching the face, self-isolating and social distancing.

Another main cause of anxiety is change. In the past few weeks, most of us have not only experienced radical changes at home and work, but in some cases, there has been a virtual upheaval in people’s lives. Change takes us out of our comfort zone, and this makes most of us feel very unsafe. Anxiety is the inevitable result.

Anxiety usually puts us in a state of hypervigilance, which often makes sleeping difficult. When we do not feel refreshed by sleep, the physical sensations of exhaustion and tiredness can feel like a cold or flu, and nowadays, it is understandable that this might lead to worries that the virus has been contracted, and even worse, that we might die, or that we might lose someone we know, love and care about. And excessive worrying can lead to panic or panic attacks.

Anyone who has ever experienced a panic attack knows that respiratory difficulty is one of the things that happens when you panic – causing a sensation of not being able to catch one’s breath. During a panic attack, this terror leads to ‘shallow breathing’, as the sufferer attempts to gasp for more air. So, it is important to distinguish between a panic attack, and the symptom of shortness of breath when there is an on-going respiratory condition, such as asthma, or COVID-19.

If you have any worry whatsoever that shortness of breath is virus-related, instead of anxiety-related, it is imperative that you call the telephone number advised by your local GP or Health Authority so that a qualified health care professional can advise you about what you should do.

But if you are actually suffering from health anxiety, there are a few things you can do:

Health and safety

Follow the directives of your local/national healthcare authorities. They are advising people to wash hands frequently, to be careful not to touch the face (e.g. rubbing eyes or putting fingers in the mouth or nose); to self-isolate and social distance to minimize exposure to other people; and to be more vigilant about hygiene generally. While there are many things out of your control at the moment, try to focus on the things that you are able to control, including doing the best you can to maintain your health and safety as well as the health and safety of your loved ones. 

Social media

Consider minimizing the amount of time you spend watching social media if it is increasing your anxiety. There are some good advisory notifications whose aim it is to educate you about how to stay safe – but there are many other media notifications that consist of shocking headlines that only feed the natural tendency to fear the worst. Be discerning in what you expose yourself to on social and news media.

Distraction strategy

Find some distraction that you can become engrossed in. Ideally this is something that you feel passionate about, or deeply interested in – otherwise, it will be difficult to focus on a subject that does not really engage you. Distraction is an effective strategy to take your mind away from fearful ruminations that only feed your anxiety. Many people who are now working at home find they have more time than before the virus outbreak. This may be the time to get to anything you have been putting off for lack of time.


Try to exercise in a way that is appropriate to your physical fitness, age and ability. Although you may be locked in at home, even gentle stretching exercises (many ideas available on YouTube and other media) will help to reduce feelings of tension caused by stress and anxiety.


As best you can, try to clear your mind of the day’s concerns as you try to drift off to sleep. Never underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep. There are many good Apps that may help you to drift off, distracting your mind from worrying thoughts, including Headspace, Pzizz for Sleep, Unmind, Simply Rain and Calm.


And finally, become aware of any inner self-talk that is unhelpful, particularly ‘catastrophic thinking’, in which you tell yourself really unhelpful things that only increase your anxiety. We are all aware of how terrifying the COVID-19 situation is. None of us knows where this may end up. So, all you can do is the best you can to manage your inner self-talk in a way that encourages and reassures the frightened inner child within.

Being anxious all the time, losing sleep and worrying excessively about the future often has a big impact on the immune system, making people more susceptible to things like the common cold.

So, try to improve the quality of your sleep, work at maintaining a nutritionally healthy diet, get sufficient exercise, and work on de-stressing your self by practising mindfulness (living mindfully in the here and now), and ‘going with the flow’ as events in your life progress over the next few weeks.

Rather than allowing anxiety to be a monster that rules your life, let anxiety be a guide that inspires you to make changes that will help to reduce the tension anxiety creates in your body and your mind.

If any of the above is causing you to feel overwhelmed you may find it helpful to speak to someone. If talking to a close friend or family member isn't an option, there are confidential support groups you can call, providing support with all aspects of mental health. Alternatively, a professional therapist can offer help during this time, and many offer online and telephone support.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, E18
Written by Deborah Hill, PhD - BACP and Relate Accredited
London, E18

Deborah Hill is a psychotherapist specializing in stress, anxiety, and trauma. She has worked extensively as a bereavement counsellor working with people who have experienced life-changing events.

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