Managing Anxiety

In these difficult time be kind

[I said I would for time to time use this blog for non-Haskell topics and this article is the first such article. Article edited on 2020-04-08 to add ‘avoid anger’ to the recommendations.]

While listening to today’s Today In Focus podcast about the UK Prime Minister’s admission to Intensive Care I noticed I was suppressing an anxiety response. On the podcast Anushka Asthana and Jonathan Freedland were explaining how they had experienced the news as dramatic and shocking. This did not chime with my own experience — until I listened to the podcast, at which point I found myself managing, briefly, a surge of anxiety.

What is going on here? I think the way we get news and how we respond to it is key. It is widely believed that stress weakens the immune system so it is probably a good idea to try and free ourselves of senseless worry.

I get all of my news from The Guardian which early in the crisis put in place policies to manage the tone of reporting and presenting news to avoid sensationalising. I have always found broadcast news to be much more emotionally disruptive while conveying astonishingly little content compared to newspapers and their websites. (News websites by broadcasters like the BBC seem to be like responsible newspaper websites.)

I find that since the early crisis that staying on top of the news by reading the Guardian website does not contribute at all to anxiety in the way that broadcast news does. For sure it can consume time, so discipline needs to be maintained, but that is it. I hear people saying that they have to ration their access to news — my suspicion is that this is predominantly broadcast A/V news. (I would be very interested to hear from folks about their experience in this regard.)

Why the different response?

Specifically I think these factors may have altered my response to that reported by Asthana and Freedland.

  1. Getting informed about what is happening helps to reduce anxiety. Worry festers with poor information. Good information empowers and reduces the potential for surprises. Watching the whole evolution of the crisis, how the virus was spreading in Londoner, how government administrators seemed to be very poor at following their own advice, it seemed extremely likely that those at the centre of the crisis would be vulnerable. That the Prime Minister would be especially vulnerable seemed likely for reasons I will get to. So, like many outside the Wesminster bubble who were paying attention, the development with the UK PM seemed anything but surprising. While this undoubtedly creates special problems, against the backdrop of what is projected to break on hospitals in the UK and in the developing world, it did not seem like a wild development. (It should be said that while we have had better moments, I have a lot of confidence in the UK government and civil service to meet the challenges as the personnel rotate in and out.)

  2. My response to the news of Johnson getting into trouble and being admitted to intensive care was to put myself into his position. I have a particular problem with our PM in that I pretty much abhor almost everything that he has done in his professional and personal career to date and every value he has come to represent. (Anybody familiar with politics in England for the past five years will understand.) I had to be careful to avoid any trace of Schadenfreude. It is anyway natural to imagine what has happened. The stress on any Prime Minister is pretty severe at the best of times never mind the worst of times. It is fair to say that Johnson’s current role is not very natural despite his (quite natural) belief that it was his destiny. Clearly he should have addressed the succession issue and convalesced properly — something that would hitherto come very naturally and be his natural state. That this did not happen is easy to understand. On a human level it was easy to feel a strong empathy and to pull for his quick recovery.

  3. I have a longstanding daily meditation practice that helps to stabilise my moods, with sleep, axiety, etc.


  1. Try to avoid sources of anxiety — it is contagious.

  2. Try to stay informed with high quality sources and cut out broadcast news.

  3. Develop a focus on the global picture as, done right, it helps to keep your own worries in perspective.

  4. Develop empathy for those in unfortunate circumstances, under high economic, health or work stresses. Compassion is a really powerful tool in dealing with stress, considered by some as the ultimate antidote.

  5. Develop gratitude for those that are risking their lives to keep us all fed and healthy. Such appreciation is a really good development of this crisis and, where true, cannot be commended enough.

  6. Avoid anger, including towards those not adhering to the lockdown in ways that you think they should. It simply cuts against points 1 and 7.

  7. If you can try to develop a meditation practice. (Sorry, you will have to seek out a source of instruction that suits you.)

Got an issue with any of this? Please share or drop me a line (see below).