“I Don’t Risk Leaving The House”: Coronavirus & My Health Anxiety

Illustration by Ada Yokota/Getty Images.
Coronavirus (Covid-19) is spreading at a rapid rate. As of today, more than 82,000 people are known to be infected and more than 2,800 deaths have been recorded. While the majority of cases have been recorded in mainland China, it has spread internationally to countries in Europe and the Middle East.
Italy has confirmed 400 cases and 12 deaths and Iran has 141 cases and 22 deaths. It was announced on Thursday that two more patients have tested positive for coronavirus in England, bringing the total number of cases in the UK to 15. Most patients have recovered and been discharged from hospital.
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Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, was first detected in Wuhan, China in December last year. The virus starts with a fever, followed by a dry cough, and leads to shortness of breath.
Some countries have begun closing borders and implementing travel bans to prevent coronavirus spreading further. The UK government has said it is working to contain the virus.
With so many new reports of coronavirus cases around the world, it can be difficult not to worry. A recent YouGov survey found that 60% of British people see coronavirus as a major or moderate threat to the country. For those dealing with health anxiety, it can feel like a nightmare.
Refinery29 spoke to a young woman whose hypochondria has spiralled since the news broke that coronavirus had hit the UK. Maryam Nassif is a 22-year-old student who lives in London and works part-time. She told us she's felt so much fear that she has refused to leave the house at weekends to avoid catching the virus.
This is what she had to say.
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I've had health anxiety for as long as I can remember.
I sought professional help when it got too much and I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, which includes hypochondria. I've been going to therapy since, and things were looking up for me, for a brief moment, until the coronavirus outbreak.
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Maryam Nassif
Maryam Nassif
When I first heard of coronavirus, I was very much in control of my thoughts. I said to myself: It's far away, it's nowhere near me, it won't reach me, I'm safe. The notion of safety is crucial when dealing with anxiety; I constantly need to remind myself that I'm safe and that I'm okay, in order to ground my thoughts and get out of the tornado. But when the virus spread I stopped feeling safe. I kept repeating to myself that the flu kills more people and that the virus is not that big of a deal. But 'not that big of a deal' is anxiety lingo for 'CODE RED'. I tried not to let my thoughts control me but I felt so powerless.
I've diverted plans and altered my schedule to suit my anxiety. I take an hour and a half bus ride to work in the morning instead of a 20-minute Tube in order to avoid rush hour and minimise my contact with sick people. At weekends, I don't risk leaving the house even if it means taking time away from friends and missing university. I've invested in so many antibacterial products, medical masks, ginger shots and vitamins to prevent the virus from getting to me. I don't care if I break the bank, I need to feel safe. I make sure to spray my coat, bags, shoes and dirty clothes with antibacterial spray after I come home every night. I wash my hands every 10 minutes. I never touch my face. I get triggered by words like 'virus', 'deadly' and 'pandemic' and when people jokingly say: "Oh, I think I have the coronavirus!"
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I've had to mute every news outlet on my phone and laptop and I still can't avoid it. People are posting about it on their Instagram Stories, it's in the newspapers. It's everywhere.
The whole thing feels apocalyptic to me. I'm used to fearing illnesses such as appendicitis, kidney stones or hernias. I can't stop the negative ideas and uneasy feeling. I often feel heaviness on my chest, accompanied by feelings of doom, feeling like the world might end right there and then. The more the virus spreads around the world, the more I feel suffocated and helpless.
I can't decide what scares me most: the thought of being on the Tube with someone coughing, actually getting sick or being quarantined. I keep looking for ways to strengthen my immune system, because maybe, just maybe, that could work. I've reached a manic mode of behaviour, where I obsess about the littlest details, hoping I can crack a nonexistent code that could protect me from evil. Being in this whirlwind is exhausting and very lonely.
I know it's important to spread awareness but it's anxiety-inducing. There's a constant feeling of inescapability and it gets too much, and not just for those who suffer from health anxiety.
I wake up every day hoping to see that it has all ended. Navigating these intense emotions feels like a seesaw between desperation and hopefulness. It's important to remind myself that good things still exist and I hope soon the virus will be contained and no one else will get sick.
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If you are suffering with anxiety, you can get free advice at mind.org.uk. If you need urgent help, call the Samaritans for free on 116 123.
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