Anticipatory Anxiety: Watching and Waiting For Corona Virus to Ravage Our Country and Psyches | EAPA-SA
As we watch the news of the novel Corona virus ravage the world causing suffering and mass deaths, people here in South Africa are already experiencing some of this fallout in the form of what’s being understood as pre-traumatic stress reaction. When we watch the news or read the headlines about the untimely deaths of thousands of people, shortage of medical supplies to treat them and the financial instability that has gripped the world, we start to think about and imagine the experiences of these people and their loved ones who have been infected and affected by this virus. Furthermore , it leaves us wondering about our already seemingly fragile country, leaving us questioning if it can survive more trauma than it already has had and is having to cope with. While watching and waiting, people cannot help but start to wonder: Are we going to be safe? Who’s going to take care of us? Is there enough resources for my loved ones and I? This can lead to feelings of fear, rage, helplessness, anxiety, despair and paralysis, which ultimately results in an inability to function as we normally do. Pre-traumatic stress can hinder a person’s psychological well-being and quality of life, which is why it is important to address them. 
It is interesting to note that this phenomenon of pre-traumatic stress reaction is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but some psychologists are employing it in reference to the symptoms that are currently being seen presenting in people’s behaviour across the nation as well as in our virtual therapy rooms. 

Pre-traumatic Stress Symptoms can Include: 

  • Worry 
  • Irritability and anger
  • Sadness
  • Disturbing intrusive thoughts
  • Grief
  • Hypervigilance around physical symptoms
  • Sleep Troubles and nightmares
  • Preoccupation with current news of corona virus
  • Avoidant behaviours
  • Negative thoughts

Mental health professionals would often see these symptoms presenting after a traumatic event but in this case, they stem from anticipatory anxiety about an event that may occur in the future. An event that seems to be creeping closer to our physical and psychic bodies. A similar phenomenon is evident in soldiers facing deployment into possible combat situations. These soldiers have not yet been immersed into a war zone but can anticipate what this experience of “war and combat” might be like which creates high levels of anxiety and stress. In a similar way, South Africans have been guarding and arming themselves with face masks, surgical gloves and hand sanitizer, preparing to wage war with an invisible and sinister enemy which has already claimed the lives of thousands of people across the world.

Protecting our Psyches against a Pre-Traumatic Stress Reaction:


Taking good care of yourself by getting adequate rest and sleep, eating the right foods and exercising regularly can also help mitigate some of the effect. 

Practice “physical distancing” not “social distancing”: 

While we keep our physical distance from people to manage the spread of the Corona virus, it is especially important now that we practice social connectedness. It may be helpful to talk to other people who are currently grappling with similar issues to ward off feelings of loneliness and isolation. One particularly challenging aspect of this virus is that it threatens and goes against our natural instinct as human beings to be socially connected to each other.

Constructive actions vs. panic reactions: 

It is both understandable and necessary to be prepared and to take constructive action in preparing for protecting yourself against this virus as well as the possibility that you may contract this virus. Taking these constructive actions will also likely reduce the energy that goes into feeling vulnerable and helpless. However, we have seen across the country how people have been completely overcome by feelings and symptoms of pre-traumatic stress reactions which has resulted in panic buying and hoarding. Whilst these behaviours can alleviate immediate feelings, the impact is not lasting and the anxiety settles back in.

Access professional mental health services:

The current crisis may cause people who have a tendency to worry intensely, to be even more susceptible to pre-traumatic stress reactions and may also exacerbate existing mental health issues. Accessing professional mental health services might be protective as well as supportive during this period.

It is true that we as South Africans have had to and are currently dealing with complex experiences and traumas of our country’s past. However, it is perhaps due to these traumas and experiences that we have built some resilience as a nation in coping with trauma. There have often been periods in our country’s history where we have anticipated trauma and have many more experiences of surviving these traumas. 

Kevashini Govender-Naidoo

Kevashini Govender-Naidoo

Impilo Consulting - Clinical Psychologist. MA. Clin. Psych (UCT)

Kevashini Govender-Naidoo is a University of Cape Town trained clinical psychologist and a specialist organisational development and support consultant. After approximately 20 years of clinical experience, Kevashini co-founded Impilo Consulting. She has an interest in systems-psychodynamic work and has since developed an expertise through extensive and diverse experiences in the public and private sectors in South Africa and the United Kingdom. She is especially interested in the impact of mental health issues in the workplace as well as issues of race, power and gender within organisations. Kevashini currently consults for the University of Cape Town and has been doing so for the past 9 years.