How to deal with monkeypox anxiety, according to a psychologist

Written by Leah Sinclair

As the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has updated the monkeypox definition to include new symptoms, more people are sharing their anxiety around the virus – here is how to combat it.

While doing my daily doomscroll on Twitter, there was one topic that dominated my timeline above everything else: monkeypox.

The disease, which is from the same family of viruses as smallpox, has officially been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation, sparking concerns around the world at the prospect of a new disease to worry about.

The definition of the virus has been updated bythe UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), and now includes a single lesion or lesions on the genitals, anus and surrounding area, lesions in the mouth, and symptoms of proctitis (anal or rectal pain or bleeding).

The virus spreads through close contact with someone with monkeypox, including sexual contact; touching clothing, bed linen or towels used by a person who has monkeypox; or through coughs and sneezes of someone infected.

With a global rise in cases and images showing the physical symptoms of monkeypox on social media, many have begun to share that they have monkeypox anxiety.

This increase in anxiety linked to a new global crisis isn’t unfamiliar. In fact, The Lancet reported a rise in depressive and anxiety disorders during 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It is understandable to fear ill health, especially in the context of having spent two years trying to navigate an unexpected and highly impactful pandemic,” says Dr Suzanne Azer, clinical psychologist and senior lecturer at Exeter University

Dr Azer says fear only becomes a problem rather than a “protective alarm system” when it dominates and people find themselves increasingly preoccupied with worrying about becoming unwell – something which is becoming increasingly common as discussions around monkeypox continue to dominate on platforms like Twitter.

As images of people with monkeypox surface, many are sharing how the physical symptoms and visuals are further adding to their monkeypox anxiety.

“The physical symptoms of monkeypox are regarded as unsightly by many people and in a society that is so focused on image, this leads some people to feel particularly fearful of contracting it,” says Azer.

“Both the current name and the visibility of symptoms increase the sense of shame, and the information that it is often sexually transmitted also brings with it an additional stigma,” she claims.

Dr Azur highlights the importance of seeking out reliable information to help combat monkeypox anxiety and informing yourself with accurate information from reputable sources.

“Look at NHS websites or read articles by health experts. Decide what you can do to reduce your risk and have confidence in sharing your feelings with friends,family and partners,” she says.

And if you want to stay up to date with news regarding monkeypox but not be consumed by it, Dr Azur recommends talking about your monkeypox anxiety with friends and family or mental health professionals.

“It is normal to fear becoming unwell – after all, it is partly this fear that motivates you to try to look after yourself and heightened anxiety culturally during the pandemic has meant that this now might be second nature to some of us.

“If you notice that you are becoming preoccupied with fears, it may be time to gently question your beliefs about monkeypox and talk them through with people you trust.

“It may be that airing and sharing your feelings and listening to others will go a long way to reassuring you that you’re doing the best you can.

“If anxieties persist, it may be worth talking them through with your GP initially to explore whether further support from a mental health professional would be useful to you.”

Dr Azur adds that it may be useful to “scan headlines rather than read every article about it” and to “set limits for yourself on how much you engage with the news, especially if you find yourself scrolling for hours on Twitter, for example”.

“Take a break, do things you enjoy and remember that you are doing your best to stay well and that is enough.”  

For more information on monkeypox, visit the NHS website.

Image: Getty

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