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By Thami Kwazi

Lifestyle Print Editor

People are facing societal reintegration and they’re terrified

Adjusting back to socialising after months of lockdown is something many people are suffering with. Psychologist, Sandisiwe Mlotshwa gives practical solutions on dealing with the condition.

“I am terrified of crowds. I tend to overthink what I’m saying and my actions. I’ve lived most of my life on stage and was a subject of a lot of scrutiny and teasing because of it. The more I performed, the more I retreated into my shell. I find it easier to play a character than to be myself”

These are the amplified emotions that spiral through Nthabi’s head every time she has to go on stage and perform live.

Nthabi is a trained actress and getting a salary involves interacting with people daily.  Since the Coronavirus pandemic began, her anxiety which was once more moderate, has heightened. For her anxiety is sensory and can be triggered by the most trivial thing.

According to BBC work life “a significant minority who will be affected by long-term anxiety”. The pandemic is giving rise to the fears of germaphobes and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) sufferers manifesting physically as anxiety.

Nthabi suffers from what Sandisiwe Mlotshwa, a counseling psychologist, who practices at Akeso Parktown calls anxiety. Akeso is a group of private in-patient mental health facilities that are part of the Netcare group.

Although seen as a debilitating condition, in small doses anxiety, acts as a mental protectant. Protecting us from doing things that could bring harm, such as recklessness or jumping off a building. The downside is when these fears become a focus and take over our lives.

“When these reactions occur too frequently and are more severe, they can begin to affect our work performance, relationships, and quality of life,” Mlotshwa says.

The pandemic

Particularly relevant to where society finds its self with the current pandemic. Under lockdown level 5, everything was ruled out including social interaction and routine human connection, deemed necessary for human survival including, relationships that lead to procreation. A substantial part of society who are not anti-social has been forced to adjust to the almost hermit like life of only leaving the house when necessary.

With the gradual reopening of the world under lower lockdown levels, presently level three, many people who’d become accustomed to not having to socialise are faced with societal reintegration coupled with the fear of catching a potentially terminal virus. This sets a deep form of anxiety into play.

Understanding anxiety

What are the symptoms of anxiety? Mlotshwa explains “Uncontrollable worry, excessive nervousness, sleep problems, muscle tension poor concentration, increased heart rate, upset stomach, avoidance of situations that may cause fear, or the fear itself.”

Mlotshwa reveals that are numerous forms of anxiety disorders, with social anxieties or social phobia, separation anxieties in addition to panic attacks.

Single mother, Diane who suffers from what she self describes as severe anxiety, has trouble being around her colleagues. Many of the symptoms described by Mlotshwa are present in her daily life.

With constant thoughts of catching the coronavirus, she only finds solace inside her home where she can be completely alone. “I am naturally a person who is in control of my entire environment so to be in a state of constantly having to prove myself is, messing with my psyche”.

To quell her anxiety, she takes long drives as often as possible without passengers “I’m sad a lot of the time, I’m shocked at how cruel the world has become. I’m also paranoid when in public but fearless when in the car and driving on my own because I trust my driving 100″.

Diane has been through a lot of loss in life due to Covid-19 and feelings of being unsafe and alone often surface: “ I think I have suppressed so much, endured so much pain from those who promised to protect me, seen betrayal in its purest form of evil that I don’t believe in people anymore and in turn, I no longer believe in myself”.

Deeply affected by the current pandemic she finds socialising with colleagues at lunchtime almost debilitating: “They accused me of never eating lunch with the company and always going out during my lunch hour and nearly two years later, I’m not going to have lunch with them to appease them, I cannot bring myself to sit at a table with a group of people, it makes me uncomfortable and it’s just downright scary.”

As a mother, part of her day involves having to go to the grocery store to buy nappies or milk. One of the hardest parts of her day is psyching herself up for the trip. This involves breathing exercises and what she describes as forced positive thoughts. She never takes her child out on these trips unless he has to see a doctor. “The pandemic has made me feel as though parenting is the ultimate trap. I can’t put a mask on a baby and I’m just frightened that if I get sick and die, he will have no-one”.

Tips to cope

Mlotshwa advises that anyone feeling this way ought to seek professional support as well as practice some routines that may help reduce fears. “Exercise can be very helpful, it promotes the healthy production of serotonin and endorphins to help regulate anxiety. These natural hormones promote feelings of calm and well-being and can assist in managing the symptoms. Exercise is often recommended in conjunction with other interventions, such as psychotherapy or medication prescribed by a psychiatrist.”

Relaxation techniques come highly recommended. Some include progressive muscle relaxation, mindful sensory engagements, and breathing deeply.

Some view this as a form of meditation. The importance of this is focusing on physical and external experiences helps with stepping outside of the immediate intense negative emotional state. These are methods taught by a psychiatrist and practiced at home.

Many turn to medication to douse the feelings of anxiety. Mlotshwa recommends that meds should only be taken as prescribed: “Psychiatrists may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to support the chemical causes of anxiety within the body. It is important not to stop taking psychiatric medicine without first consulting your treating doctor, even if you are feeling better,” she advises.

Nhabi has been seeing a medical professional and is finding that days are easier to manage. In her words, she’s taking it one day by slowly reintegrating herself back into daily social life. “Yesterday I managed to have lunch at a restaurant with two friends, I was awkward in the beginning but by the time we were done, I managed to smile a little”.

As we are currently still going through the global pandemic statistics of the mental effects of the pandemic are not known

For help contact:Psychological crisis, emergency support can be reached on 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day.

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