Don't panic, is the message from our wellbeing columnist BILL MERRINGTON

DON’T panic, don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring. These were the famous words of Lance Corporal Jones in the classic BBC comedy show Dad’s Army. This was usually said when Jonesy was in a panic! We now all find ourselves in a situation that has nothing to compare it to since the Second World War.

It is said that between 15-30 per cent of the general population reported experiencing a panic attack in the past year. This has probably increased considerably over the past few days. Such attacks come in different forms but tend to include physical symptoms and a significant sense of avoidance and apprehension. The physical symptoms of heart palpitations, nausea, chest pains and breathlessness can increase a person’s fear, believing that such symptoms can lead to a more serious negative health affect. The person can find themselves constantly thinking, ‘what if’ thoughts. If a person can say to themselves: "I’ve had these feelings before, and it’s nothing, I’ll just take a couple of deep breaths and it will calm down," they will re-gain self-control.

It is understandable that we are all asking: "what if" thoughts as the news of Covid-19 keeps developing.

We may be asking ourselves, "what if I get the disease, what if I can’t afford my debts, what if I lose my job, what if, what if".

At this moment, there are so many questions and unknown answers. We may not even be asking the right questions for the future. When so much is unsure, it can eat into all our assumptions in life. I once had a lounge ceiling that collapsed and destroyed the furniture. Fortunately, I was just leaving the room! My assumption that ceilings were safe had been shattered. For the next few months, wherever I went, I would look up and stare at ceilings! It took a while before I decided that ceilings were generally safe and I stopped vigilantly looking upwards.

The questions we might be currently asking can make some hypervigilant, actively searching for evidence to affirm our negative thinking. So we have a sequence from an anxious trigger, experiencing and noticing physical change because of the anxious thought, to suddenly catastrophising what might happen, to feeling an intense anxiety leading to a full blown panic attack.

This way of thinking naturally leads to a person ‘thinking the worst’ of a situation. It can help by writing down what happened when the attack occurs. Just as the government are collecting data, we too can keep a log of our anxious thoughts and emotional attacks. This can provide valuable information to equip a person to change their behaviour. Following this, write an ‘anti-panic’ sheet, which shows possible alternative interpretations. This might include, “I may never contract the disease, I may be immune, it may be no worse than a strong cold, I’ll cope with it, eventually things will return back to normal, it’s a chance for me to care for others', etc .

This can work effectively when you are calm, but more difficult when your mind jumps quickly to negative thoughts, especially at vulnerable moments. It helps to recognise the specific times when you are triggered. Often it can be when a person awakes, hears the TV news or looks at social media on a mobile.

Like most things, practice is the only way forward. We must recognise the difference between unproductive worry and productive worry. Anxiety that is focused on distant imagined scenarios, or failing to accept solutions, or deliberately pursuing an unrealistic sense of safety will lead to an anxious cul-de-sac. Constantly looking to others for reassurance will not help.

Productive anxiety is when we focus on immediate realistic problems, focusing on problem-solving, tolerating a degree of uncertainty, leading to a more balanced view of the situation.

Ask yourself whether your worry is being productive or unproductive. Then take note of all the national news from a positive perspective. Write it down if it helps. Then practice writing down ‘problem-solving’ techniques. Start with the smallest problems you worry about. Make sure you don’t seek perfect solutions or overestimate your expectations.

In the current situation there are a few other things to acknowledge. First, recognise that everyone in the country if not the world has to deal with some anxiety in the current climate. Secondly, tell yourself that the worry may be true, but now is not the time to think about it, I’ll deal with it when I’m with someone else to talk about it. Thirdly, try and normalise your worry by still doing small practical jobs in the house. What you don’t want, is to find yourself stopping doing anything and just to sitting and worrying.

Finally, remember that ‘old habits die hard.’ It will take time to create a habit of worrying less. The more you try to control your worry, the worse it can get. Worry can never ultimately control the future or reduce uncertainties. There will always be ‘what if’s’ in life. The more we can sit with the risk and uncertainty of life, the more we will find the anxiety decreases.

Dr Bill Merrington is a therapist and chartered psychologist working in the York district (