I find it hard to sleep some nights as thoughts of the day’s latest news on the novel coronavirus epidemic churn in my head. Thoughts hard to shake. And I am not alone.
For Alicia Zhang, a native of Wuhan, life is harder. The 29-year-old journalist based in Shanghai canceled a trip to her hometown for Spring Festival because of the virus outbreak there.
“I am anxious and fearful,” Zhang told me in a phone call. “I make phone calls and send messages to family members and friends in Wuhan every day. I suffer from insomnia and have lost my appetite.”
Aside from spending endless hours reading news sites and sharing information on social media, she has also begun a home workout routine via a live-streaming platform. That has helped ease her angst about the epidemic, she said.
The epidemic is indeed taking its toll on mental health. Daily routines are disrupted. Streets are empty. Malls and entertainment venues closed. People are cooped up indoors. The sheer number of cases is startling. When will it all end?
Chen Jieyu, 30, a psychiatrist with the Counseling and Psychological Services of East China Normal University, said she and her colleagues are fielding many calls from people in distress.
“Many people feel stress and anxiety, which results from the information overload,” said Chen. “A certain feeling of fear, anxiety and anger is normal. They are our basic emotions in reacting to danger. We need to accept them and avoid magnifying them.”
Different groups of people deal differently with the psychological repercussions of the epidemic, she said.
Front line doctors and other medical staff are suffering extreme fatigue and feel nerve-racked. People in quarantine feel fear and a sense of powerlessness. Family members cooped up at home feel rising tensions and restlessness.
Me? I just feel overwhelmed by negative emotions.
What should have been a joyous Spring Festival holiday that we all looked forward to for weeks turned into a nightmare.
Huang Xinhui, a psychiatrist with the Counseling and Psychological Services of East China Normal University,
receives a counseling call at home.
As the epidemic has spread, some university psychological and counseling centers have expanded their services beyond students to the public at large. That includes Chen’s East China Normal University in Shanghai.
For people suffering from excessive anxiety, talking to a professional can be helpful.
Chen said some people who have phoned express deep foreboding. Are a few coughs the harbinger of infection or even death? Chen calls the phenomenon “automatic thoughts” — thoughts that automatically come to mind when a particular situation arises. The thoughts are often irrational and harmful.
“Uncertainty is one of the prominent reasons that results in our mental health difficulties,” said Chen. “The public doesn’t know when the novel coronavirus will be conquered and are not sure whether they will be infected. It’s natural for people to be afraid of something beyond their control.”
Heeding the government warning against unnecessary outdoor activities, many people stay indoors, glued to their smartphones to follow live updates on the epidemic and the efforts to control it.
Inundated with a ceaseless flow of news — real or fake — from various sources, many people tend to suffer mood swings.
“Vulnerable people should avoid exposing themselves to a constant stream of negative information,” said Chen. “Choosing a few reliable news sources while blocking others is a good way to manage emotions.”
Long nights and short mornings are a common holiday routine for many young people, but the extended Lunar New Year holiday this year has turned the routine into a recurring ordeal — a sort of real-life version of the movie “Groundhog Day.”
“Getting up at noon, eating lunch, watching dramas, following coronavirus news on my phone, having dinner and sleeping — another day gone,” said Emily Bao, 27, a specialist at a gallery.
Bao said she is excited to return to work.
“Unlike doing nothing during a holiday,” she said, “at work I can see the fruits of my labor and that cheers me up.”
Instead of going to the office, many people like me are working from home. I don’t mind it too much because I have family around me. However, for people living alone, the sensation of “cabin fever” can cause moodiness, loneliness, restlessness and lassitude.
“When people are restricted to one place for a long time, we tend to feel stressful,” said Chen.
She suggested that people try to maintain their normal daily routine as much as possible, eat a balanced diet, wash their hands frequently and always wear masks when going outdoors.
Proper exercise and social contact are also important, said Chen. With fitness apps and online social media, people can do simple workouts at home and keep connected with others.
For people seriously bored at home, Chen recommends several TV series and movies with psychological themes, such as “In Treatment,” “Rain Man,” “Spellbound” and “Momento.”
“The TV series and movies can help people have a better understanding of mental health,” said Chen.
But if you feel you need outside help, eight psychiatrists at the Counseling and Psychological Services and nine teachers from the School of Psychology and Cognitive Science are among 20 people at the university trying to lend psychological support to the public.
The counseling and psychological services center publishes an array of articles on its official WeChat account, “xlzxecnu.” One of them talks about coping with fearful emotions. Another discusses meditation to relieve stress and improve sleep quality.
“In order to better give advice to people who need help, one of our psychiatrists did a 17-page lesson plan, which depicts the symptoms that different groups of people might have,” said Chen.
The center provides mental health services from 8:30am to 11:30am and 1pm to 4:30pm. The public can speak with psychiatrists at the center by phoning 189-1846-4934 during regular office hours. After hours, people can contact the center via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
“The phone number actually belongs to one of our staff at the center,” said Chen.
Although the center can manage only one call at a time, a staff member is responsible for recording incoming call numbers. All calls are returned.
“The hotline will remain open until the end of the epidemic,” said Chen.
How to beat epidemic anxiety
So here I am at home, taking Chen’s advice to heart:
Try not overload yourself with negative thoughts.
Remember that it’s always darkest before the dawn.
Think about who you would most like to see and what you would most like to learn.
Make plans for the coming springtime and look at it as a season of renewed hope.