COVID-19 anxiety at an all-time high

By The Health News Team | October 18, 2021
Illustration of woman wearing mask with virus around her

In the beginning, COVID-19-related restrictions were as novel as the coronavirus itself — and a bit of an adventure. People leaned into staying at home, baking, crafting and spending newfound free time with family and housemates.

Now, the novelty of those early days has worn off and the pandemic has set in, taking a toll on many people’s emotional well-being.

“Patients continue to seek medical care for feelings of anxiety and worry,” says Dr. Abisola Olulade, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “During appointments for other concerns, they are mentioning they are having anxiety. My colleagues have noticed this as well. Uncertainty can be a big trigger for anxiety.”

A morbidity and mortality weekly report, released by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in April 2021, noted that “during August 2020–February 2021, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder increased from 36.4% to 41.5%, and the percentage of those reporting an unmet mental health care need increased from 9.2% to 11.7%. Increases were largest among adults aged 18–29 years and those with less than a high school education.”

Stress and anxiety manifest in many ways, says Dr. Olulade. This can include sweating, headaches, upset stomach, frequent urination or diarrhea, shortness of breath, muscle tension or twitches, feeling light-headed or dizzy, chest pain or sensation of chest pounding, and insomnia or trouble sleeping.

“While relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, stretching, mindfulness meditation and exercise may help, it is important to discuss these physical symptoms with your medical provider as well,” she says. And it’s not just the pandemic, or apprehension about getting sick, weighing on people. There have been other factors in play as well, Dr. Olulade says.

“Financial stressors, job losses, virtual learning challenges, feelings of isolation, not being able to socialize with friends and family for so long, not being able to travel to see loved ones — these are all things that patients have cited as contributing factors,” she says. “There is a general sense of ‘pandemic fatigue.’ In some cases, fear of the virus has given way to frustration over the effects of the pandemic.”

With the holiday season fast approaching, Dr. Olulade knows that might exacerbate those feelings of anxiety. She suggests turning to healthy diversions to manage stress and keep the mind occupied. This includes exercising, sticking to a routine, eating a healthy diet, connecting with loved ones, volunteering, helping a neighbor or trying out a new hobby.

“It is important to be mindful about your mood and how you are feeling,” says Dr. Olulade. “Every stressor, however minor, can seem bigger and more amplified due to the fact we are in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. It’s also a myth that having anxiety means you are not ‘strong enough.’ Don’t hesitate to seek help if you are struggling with anxiety.”

For mental health questions or concerns, call your primary care doctor. You can also reach out to a mental health provider directly with most insurance plans; the contact information is usually located on your health insurance card. If you or someone you love is experiencing a serious mental health crisis, call the Suicide Prevention Hotline, 24 hours a day, at 1-800-273-8255.

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