Health Anxiety Common as COVID Restrictions Loosen

Lindsay Kalter

July 14, 2021

As restrictions lift and mask mandates become scarce, Americans are filling their social calendars and booking vacations. While some are rejoicing, health care professionals say others are emerging from the pandemic with more health-related fears.

COVID-19 has caused more anxiety and depression for many over the course of the pandemic. A survey from the CDC and the Census Bureau found the percentage of adults with symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder increased from 36.4% to 41.5% from August 2020 to February 2021.

But this phenomenon will not just disappear as COVID-19 cases decrease, says Reese Druckenmiller, a clinical social worker for the Mayo Clinic Health System.

"There are still people out there not wanting to leave home," she says. "Some folks inherently struggle with anxiety more than others, and we know anxiety can come from different experiences and traumas. This pandemic has been traumatic for people."

Though there is little research on the psychological effects of pandemic outbreaks, scientists are beginning to explore this. A recent review published in the International Journal of Cognitive Therapy concluded that, based on available research and the effects of previous pandemics, COVID-19 will likely have a significant effect on people's mental health, particularly those who already have obsessive-compulsive disorder and health anxiety, along with people on the front line of health care.

According to the authors, since the virus doesn't have symptoms among certain populations, there's more anxiety about becoming infected and unknowingly spreading it to vulnerable people.

Not to mention the influx of anxiety-provoking news over the past year, Druckenmiller notes

"One thing I noticed during the pandemic: The news changed. There were still regular news stories, but at the forefront of every single newscast was the numbers, how many people have died, how many people are hospitalized," she says.

Some of Druckenmiller's own patients who are more health-focused saw this as an added burden — another source of anxiety.

For those still uncomfortable with an abrupt reentry into public spaces, Druckenmiller recommends taking small steps. Start leaving the house every day, she suggests, even if it's just for a walk. It is also important to be honest with loved ones about your own comfort level.

"Our brain is very flexible and fluid, but it also doesn't just switch on a dime," she says. "If I've been told over the past year this is a horrible thing that could kill me, my brain can't adjust that fast. We need evidence through experience."

Sources:

Newsweek: "CDC Report Shows 5% Increase in Anxiety, Depressive Disorders During COVID Pandemic."

Reese Druckenmiller, clinical social worker, Mayo Clinic Health System.

International Journal of Cognitive Therapy: "A Perfect Storm? Health Anxiety, Contamination Fears, and COVID-19: Lessons Learned from Past Pandemics and Current Challenges."

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