Covid-19 and Anxiety
Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team
- The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted many people's mental health, causing long-lasting anxiety and depression.
- Causes of COVID-19 anxiety include fear of infection, uncertainty, social isolation, economic concerns, and health-related anxieties.
- COVID-19 anxiety becomes problematic when it significantly interferes with daily functioning and relationships.
- Certain individuals are at higher risk for developing COVID-19 anxiety.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented changes to our lives, disrupting what we once considered normal. In addition to the physical health risks, the pandemic has profoundly impacted mental health, with anxiety becoming a significant concern.
Despite the availability of vaccines and decreased disease prevalence, some individuals are still experiencing what scientists call COVID-19 anxiety syndrome. This syndrome exhibits symptoms similar to other mental health conditions like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 1
In this article, we’ll explore the causes of COVID-19 anxiety, when it becomes problematic, who is at risk, and effective treatment options.
What are the causes of COVID-19 anxiety?
The causes of COVID-19 anxiety are multifaceted, stemming from the uncertainties and disruptions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Fear of infection: The highly contagious nature of the virus and its potential to cause severe illness or death can trigger anxiety and worry about contracting the virus.
- Uncertainty and ambiguity. The constantly evolving nature of the pandemic and inconsistent information can create confusion, leading to heightened anxiety levels.
- Social isolation. Measures such as lockdowns, social distancing, and remote work or education have limited social interactions, leaving individuals feeling lonely, disconnected, and anxious.
- Economic concerns. Financial instability caused by job losses, reduced income, or business closures can generate significant anxiety about financial security and stability.
- Health anxiety. The pandemic has exacerbated existing health-related tension, leading individuals to obsessively monitor their health and exhibit hypervigilance toward potential symptoms. People may also be worried about passing the virus on to others.
When is COVID-19 anxiety a problem?
Signs that COVID anxiety may be problematic include: 3
- Persistent and intense worry. Constant preoccupation with COVID-related concerns, which interferes with regular activities and relationships.
- Checking for threats. Monitoring news and social media for real and/or perceived threats. Checking for COVID-19 symptoms.
- Avoidance behavior. Avoiding situations or places that might trigger anxiety, such as public spaces or gatherings, even when appropriate safety measures are in place.
Who is at risk for COVID-19 anxiety?
COVID anxiety can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or background. However, certain individuals may be more at risk of experiencing heightened anxiety: 4
- COVID-19 survivors. Individuals who have contracted and recovered from COVID-19 are at risk of developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can be particularly true for those who required hospitalization and those who did not receive timely or appropriate care during their illness.
- Healthcare workers and at-risk professionals. Frontline healthcare workers and professionals who were directly exposed to the virus, faced high stress levels, and had an increased risk of infection are susceptible to COVID-19 anxiety. The constant exposure to the virus and the demands of their work can contribute to heightened anxiety levels.
- Stigmatized groups. Certain groups, such as individuals from marginalized communities, racial and ethnic minorities, or those facing discrimination or social stigma related to the pandemic, may experience increased anxiety. Stigmatization can lead to fear, isolation, and heightened anxiety about their health and well-being.
- Individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions. Those who already have mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, substance misuse disorders, or severe conditions like brief reactive psychosis, may be at higher risk for COVID anxiety. The added stress and uncertainty of the pandemic can exacerbate their existing mental health challenges.
How do you treat COVID-19 anxiety?
When natural disasters occur, they’re often sudden and unexpected. They jump-start our survival instincts and cause a rush of fear. Yet, the threat posed by COVID-19 is different. It’s unseen and mysterious, which can trigger more anxiety than fear. Dealing with this threat requires long-term coping mechanisms rather than immediate defensive reactions. 4
- Positive refocusing. Positive refocusing involves consciously redirecting one's focus toward positive aspects of life, which can increase mental well-being, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, alleviate loneliness, and improve sleep patterns. Practicing gratitude, engaging in joyful activities, and seeking positive social connections can facilitate positive refocusing.
- Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT). CBT approaches aim to reduce negative thoughts, worry, and anxiety symptoms related to COVID-19. Individuals can effectively manage their anxiety by challenging irrational beliefs, reframing catastrophic thinking, and developing adaptive coping mechanisms through techniques like cognitive restructuring.
- Self-monitoring. Self-monitoring involves tracking and observing one's thoughts and behaviors. Individuals can develop strategies to manage emotional responses and address anxiety by identifying triggers and recognizing maladaptive patterns.
- Physical exercise and relaxation techniques. Regular physical exercise releases endorphins, promotes relaxation, and helps distract from distressing thoughts, benefiting mental health and reducing anxiety. Combining physical activity with relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation further reduces stress and promotes calmness.
- Distress tolerance and acceptance. Developing distress tolerance skills is crucial for managing COVID anxiety. Accepting uncertain and uncontrollable situations can alleviate distress and reduce anxiety levels. Grounding exercises, mindfulness, and acceptance-based practices help individuals cope with pandemic uncertainties, accepting anxiety without judgment, leading to reduced intensity and impact.
Wrapping it up
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented anxiety levels, affecting individuals worldwide. Understanding the causes of post-COVID anxiety, recognizing when it becomes problematic, identifying those at risk, and implementing appropriate treatment strategies are crucial for addressing this mental health challenge.
By fostering a supportive environment, promoting self-care practices, and ensuring access to professional help, we can navigate these uncertain times with resilience, empathy, and a commitment to holistic well-being.
Q: Does COVID-19 cause anxiety?
A: Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic can cause or contribute to feelings of anxiety in individuals. The uncertainties, disruptions, and risks associated with the pandemic can trigger anxiety symptoms in many people. Fear of contracting the virus, concerns about the health and safety of loved ones, financial worries, social isolation, and the constant barrage of pandemic-related news can all contribute to heightened anxiety levels. Additionally, the changes in daily routines, restrictions on social activities, and the overall impact on society can create a sense of unease and distress, further exacerbating anxiety.
Q: How long does post-COVID anxiety last?
A: The duration of post-COVID anxiety can vary from person to person. For some individuals, post-COVID anxiety may be temporary and subside on its own within a few weeks or months. However, for others, it may persist for a more extended period. The length of time can depend on several factors, including the severity of the individual's COVID-19 experience, any pre-existing mental health conditions, other stressors, and the availability of support and treatment.
Q: Can I take anxiety medications with COVID-19?
A: It’s essential to consult a healthcare professional, such as a doctor or psychiatrist, regarding using anxiety medications or others during COVID-19. They can provide personalized advice based on your specific circumstances and medical history.
Q: Does COVID-19 cause anxiety attacks?
A: Yes, COVID-19 can potentially trigger anxiety attacks or panic attacks in some individuals. The stress, fear, and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic can contribute to heightened anxiety levels, which may lead to anxiety attacks.
Q: Can COVID-19 make my anxiety worse?
A: Yes, COVID-19 can exacerbate existing anxiety or contribute to developing anxiety symptoms in individuals who have not previously experienced anxiety.