Anxiety-ridden Calgarians say unknowns around pandemic stoking fear

Experts are telling people who are feeling overwhelmed by the steady bombardment of sometimes conflicting, and often fear-ridden COVID-19 information, to limit their intake of news through social media and other platforms.

One sociologist says we are living in a time of rampant uncertainty

April Roe, a grocery store clerk who works in downtown Calgary, says that as a germaphobe, she is finding the COVID-19 pandemic very stressful. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

If you are feeling extremely anxious right now, you are probably not even going to read this article.

Experts are telling people who are feeling overwhelmed by the steady bombardment of sometimes conflicting, and often fear-ridden COVID-19 information, to limit their intake of news through social media and other platforms.

And that's exactly what Calgarian April Roe is doing.

"My anxieties were getting so high, I just went, 'OK, I can't handle this anymore' and I shut everything off," said Roe.

The 50-year-old works as a grocery store cashier in downtown Calgary.

As someone with an autoimmune disorder, Roe admits she has long been a germaphobe, but said her fear of catching coronavirus is exacerbating her phobia while at work.

"I watch what they're touching. I watch if they touch their face and then if they touch the till because that means I have to clean it right away," said Roe.

"I'm making $15 an hour, 14 hours a week, and I'm basically feeling I'm putting my life on the line."

Theresa Hollis, 27, says she has struggled with anxiety for most of her adult life, and the pandemic is making it worse. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Calgarian Theresa Hollis, who is an office administrator, has been forced to work from home. She said she feels trapped in her tiny one-bedroom apartment, and worries about seeing her family again. Her parents and sister live in Montreal. 

"I'm not sure if or when or how I'll be able to see them next, and that kind of stuff," said Hollis. "It's scary."

Hollis, 27, said she has struggled with anxiety for most of her adult life, and the pandemic is worsening it.

Hollis wanted to share her story in the hope of letting others know they're not alone.

27% of Distress Centre calls related to COVID-19

The Calgary Distress Centre said most of its calls right now are related to COVID-19.

Concerns around the virus accounted for nearly 27 per cent of its 442 calls between March 15 and 21.

Of those calls, 38 per cent were related to anxiety, 18 per cent were related to loneliness and isolation and 16 per cent were related to depression.

Roe works in the self-checkout section of her downtown Calgary grocery store.

She said her job has changed drastically — spending most of her shifts wiping down the nine tills she oversees and each of their bag racks.

Roe said she used to look forward to interacting with the public but now it stresses her out.

"I had a lady run up to me and hugged me the other day, and as opposed to hugging back I was scared," she said. "Say hi and say thank you, you know, but don't try to touch us."

Roe said she stays awake at night worrying about so much that is unknown.

"We don't know when it's going to end, we don't know when it's going to go back to normal, if we're ever going to go back to normal," said Roe.

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Roe isn't the only one struggling with an unfixed end date. 

Hollis said like many people, she's goal-oriented, and it's hard to buckle down and work from home when there's no end in sight.

"I'm hoping that, you know, it only is like maybe a month or two, but there's so much speculation and so many different articles and news coming out every day, where you're seeing it," she said. "There's just no real answer."

Sociologist Mickey Vallee said if people are looking for absolutes, solutions, answers and scientific certainties, that probably won't happen until we're through this pandemic.

"We're living in an event, within an event, and we haven't made sense of the event yet. We're making sense of the event, which means that every time we turn to an authority who might have an answer they're going to be counteracted by three or four different experts who are going to have different answers," Vallee said.

Vallee said everyone is looking for direction but messages can seem conflicting and it can be confusing for some to decipher which sources of information should be trusted.

Athabasca University associate professor Mickey Vallee says if people are looking for absolutes, solutions, answers or scientific certainties, that probably won’t happen until we’re through this pandemic. (Mickey Vallee)

Vallee said we are living in a time of rampant uncertainty. That, perhaps, may be the cause of this widespread anxiety, he said. 

"When you're uncertain of something you're uncertain of the outcome, right? And we don't know what the outcome of this yet is," he said. 

"But what that causes, on the social side, is an anxiety, not an uncertainty over outcome, but an anxiety about the consequences of our lived experiences."

But after saying this, Vallee said he may be wrong.

"Everything's at a 45-degree angle right now," he said. "It's like we're walking through a funhouse, you know, in those sort of tippy rooms."

Vallee said he's just starting to dig into some of these questions by doing some ethnographic work on people who are living with quarantine and people living in isolation.

So far, what he sees are people who are bored and uncertain.

Turn outward to ease anxiety

To ease his anxiety, Vallee said he tries to remember to turn his attention outward, constantly reminding himself that he's not worried about getting COVID-19. Rather, he's worried about spreading it.

"Which is an ironic thing to say, because you have the panic inside you when you're worried about [whether] there is COVID-19 on my milk jug," he said. "But then when I think about spreading it, instead, it makes me breathe a little better, and realize that it's not about protecting myself, it's about protecting the other people around." 

He says he finds comfort knowing what everyone else is doing — from grocery store clerks to the scientific community — to try to get through this.

Be in the moment

Psychologist Karin Klassen said in order to prevent the panic from setting in, it's important for people to ask themselves, "Is it true, or do I feel that way? Because thoughts are not facts, and feelings are not facts."

"So to stop the panic, you can verbally reassure yourself, 'I'm OK, everything is OK, my kids are fine, everything I am doing is the thing I am supposed to be doing, none of the things I am imagining is happening right now,'" Klassen said.

Klassen said anxiety seeps in when our brains are trying to keep busy — by going down the rabbit hole of "what-ifs." 

So she suggests doing meditation to bring one's attention back to the present moment.

Practicing mindfulness can be done anywhere, Klassen said, several times a day.

"You can use your sensory perceptions to get into the moment anytime," she said.

"If I'm smelling something right now then that's right now, it can't be the future, it can't be the past, it can only be right now."

Then, Klassen said, it's important to give the brain something to do — and that's when she suggests tackling a project, cleaning out a cupboard or doing taxes.

The Distress Centre offers other coping strategies — such as learning a new skill.

And aside from taking a break from social media or reducing the number of times people check the news, a spokesperson for the Distress Centre suggests sticking to the official websites of the provincial government or Alberta Health Services to access COVID-19 information.

And if people don't have anyone to connect with either in person or through an online platform, they are encouraged to reach out to the Distress Centre.

"One of the things that we talk about here a lot at the distress centre is, times of crisis are also times for opportunity,"  said Mike Velthuis Kroeze with the centre. "You get to learn a lot about yourself and you get to grow when you get to try new things."

About the Author

Colleen Underwood has been a reporter/editor with CBC news for more than 10 years filing stories from across southern Alberta for radio, television and online. Follow her on Twitter @cbccolleen.


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