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COVID-Induced Anxiety in Physicians: How Did I Cope?

Sirosh Masuood, MD

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June 16, 2022

When the pandemic hit the world, I was working as a psychiatry consultant in a hospital. With the lockdown, much of the hospital seemed deserted. In the doctor's parking lot, where it was normally hard to find a spot, only a few cars were parked. Once busy corridors were nearly empty. So was the doctors' lounge.

As I walked inside the hospital, I had a feeling of anxiety, a sense of doom.

Colleagues no longer hung out with each other the way they did in the past. Every conversation was about the confusion surrounding the virus and how to protect oneself from it. People expressed fear, both of getting the infection and of spreading it to loved ones.

Some were concerned about an ill family member at home, while others worried about transmitting the virus to their kids. Still others thought their own health might be in jeopardy because of an illness or immunocompromised status.

At work, the number of psychiatric consults for anxiety increased as people endured social isolation, watching the news and social media all day with no one to share the stress. Admissions following suicide attempts also went up. It was heartbreaking to see patients in their 80s and 90s saying that they did not want to be alone.

Colleagues I had admired for their optimism and calm demeanor shared how helpless they felt. One of them told me, "I do not know what to do for them; they are all dying." Another, who didn't want to do certain procedures for fear of contracting the virus, talked about loss of control and how it was leading to anger, frustration, and anxiety.

I was consulted about a patient with COVID-related delirium who in the end did not make it. I called her son. He couldn't visit the hospital because of restrictions, and video conferences with family members were not yet established. He asked me to describe how his mother looked when I evaluated her. It was heavy for me. I tried my best to provide support but am not confident that I did a good job.

During that period, I rushed through my work so I could go home as quickly as possible. As soon as I got home, I would turn on the TV to learn more about the virus: infection rates, numbers of positive cases and deaths, how hospitals across the country were unable to meet the needs of all the sick patients. Then there was social media, with all kinds of true and false headlines. I had a sick elderly person at home, which added to the anxiety and stress.

One evening a friend called and, after venting about our stressful daily routines, we began to chat about completely random stuff. By the end of the call, we both were laughing. It had been more than a month since I'd enjoyed any conversation, more than a month since I had laughed. I really needed that laugh. I felt a sense of relief. And that's when I realized just how anxious and stressed the pandemic had made me.

It wasn't long before I recognized the triggers. I stopped watching news 24/7. I selected one resource for reliable information and decided to check it only once a day. I started interacting with friends who had a positive outlook. We still couldn't hang out in person, but connecting through video chats helped a lot.

Anxiety, put simply, is fear of the unknown. As we grow, we develop skills to cope with it. But when those skills stop working, we feel a loss of control. We fear the future and get caught in a cycle of "what if."

Many of my physician colleagues went through that and called me to process their feelings. Some were simply looking for support; others were interested in therapy and medications.

Medication management and therapy — specifically cognitive-behavioral therapy — can alleviate anxiety disorders. I help patients to recognize what is in their control and what is not. The world is full of uncertainties, and not everything happens according to plan. The COVID pandemic proved that we could do only our part; the rest we had to learn to let go. Life is unpredictable and as much as we want to be in the driver's seat, we have to learn that the steering wheel is not always in our control. With that mindset, it's easy to deal with any stressful situation.

Untreated anxiety can lead to depression. If you know someone who is experiencing uncontrolled anxiety that affects everyday life, please encourage them to seek help. Anxiety is treatable. They do not need to suffer alone.

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About Dr Sirosh Masuood
Dr Masuood is a board-certified psychiatrist. She completed her general psychiatry training at Mount Sinai/Icahn School of Medicine in New York where she was chief resident. She pursued fellowship training in consultation and liaison (C&L) psychiatry at Long Island Jewish/North Shore Hospital in New York. She has vast experience in outpatient practice and C&L psychiatry. She has worked at Shady Grove Medical Center, Adventist Health Care, where she established the C&L service and served as medical director. Currently she is a partner in a private practice, Excel Psychiatric Consultation, in Germantown, Maryland, where she offers medication management and TMS. Dr Masuood has a special interest in physician well-being and offers psychotherapy and coaching to physicians.

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