When it comes to physical health, pain is instructive; it tells us something is wrong. We are often told not to ignore physical pain, to get it checked out because the sooner we act on these things, the better. When it comes to mental health, however, the discourse is not as straight forward. Like many others living with anxiety and panic attacks, these are troubling times. Living with anxiety means having to rationalise fears, but how to do that when the world is faced with an unprecedented threat?
When we are scared our bodies react in very specific ways. Our heart rate increases, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are stimulated. Our senses are heightened, which can leave us breathless and overwhelmed. We feel on-guard, physically anticipating threat. During the Paleolithic era, this human response to fear literally kept us alive. The bodily responses to perceived threat would have enabled our ancestors to fight or run from harm. As well as reacting to physical threats, cavemen held a fear of rejection, because in Palaeolithic society rejection could result in a person being ostracised and literally dying alone without the protection of their community. What is interesting is how our bodies can still react this way even when there is no actual threat present. Nowadays, these physical symptoms are not only extremely worrying but can become debilitating if untreated.
Although what our ancestors experienced can’t be described of as Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), this modern-day phenomenon perhaps touches on a primal fear of being left out of a community. A Study conducted by Dr Barbara Kahn and associates in 2015 (‘Fomo: How the Fear of Missing Out Leads to Missing Out’) found that although this fear is not the same as what would have been experienced by our ancestors, it is more closely linked with anxiety and can lead to panic resulting from the social anxiety of feeling left out or inadequate. Feelings that for many, are compounded by lockdown.
Social media certainly has a role to play when it comes to the collective fear experienced by many as a result of Covid-19. Stephen Buckley, the head of information at Mind, a mental health charity, told BBC News that people were "really struggling with isolation…and fears about the future.” Even for those who don’t already experience anxiety, being bombarded with endless news cycles and reminders that we are living with a threat so deadly that we can’t leave our homes will no doubt take a toll. It is no surprise then, that Bristol based project Children of the 90s, found anxiety rose from 13% to 24% during lockdown amongst 27-29 year olds.
Whilst technology has provided a way for us to stay connected, it has made the pain of others more accessible, such as the tragic death of George Floyd which has been shared globally. It is important that these atrocities are recorded and shared in order to stand testimony to the discrimination faced by Black people and people of colour as a result of systemic racism. These viral videos have played a catalytic role in mobilising and focusing individuals towards actions that are already yielding long-overdue results. A side-effect of these graphic videos going viral, however, is the ensuing trauma experienced by those who are targeted within them.
Ongoing research conducted by UCL during lockdown has found that levels of depression and anxiety is higher amongst people with BAME backgrounds, “Thoughts of death, although affecting fewer than 15% of people, have been on average a third higher in BAME groups and whilst fewer than 5% of people have reported self-harming during lockdown, these reports have been around 70% higher amongst BAME groups (4-7% reporting self-harming compared to 3-4%)” Lead author, Dr Daisy Fancourt (UCL Epidemiology & Health Care) also said that, “Differences in experiences and inequalities themselves may also be products of individual and systemic racism, an issue highlighted by the Black Lives Matter protests in recent weeks.” As lockdown eases and the world slowly opens itself up, we need to be mindful towards those within society who are and have been in pain, who are feeling fear about emerging into a world that continues to remind them they are not yet safe.
When experiencing physical trauma there is a protocol we follow. From first aid to triage, we are secure in the knowledge that steps will be taken to ensure that we heal. When experiencing emotional or mental trauma in the UK, we are encouraged to contact our GP. I know first-hand what a dead end this can be. You will be added to a seemingly endless waiting list in order to access therapy or maybe offered meds, then left to deal with the pain and fear without any idea of how to alleviate it. Having a panic attack is terrifying. You struggle for breath, you are in physical pain but as a GP tried to reassure me, the pain won’t kill you. We don’t look at the pain from an accident and ignore it, or ‘get over it’, we treat it. So why not the same with emotional/mental health?
Written by Yasmina Floyer