Living during a pandemic has given rise to a number of new challenges and for many, the impact living alongside COVID has had on mental health has been considerable.
Researchers at the University of Queensland recorded 76 million additional cases of anxiety disorders and 53 million of major depressive disorder during COVID’s spread across the world in 2020.
It found an estimated increase of anxiety disorders of 26 percent worldwide.
The socioeconomic consequences of stay at home orders may have disproportionately impacted women, making them more likely to experience mental health difficulties, the study’s co-author Alize Ferarri explained.
“Additional caring and household responsibilities tend to fall on women, and because women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, which increased at various stages of the pandemic,” she said.
But what exactly is COVID related anxiety and what should you do if you have started experiencing it for the first time?
What Is Anxiety?
“Anxiety is an umbrella term for a number of disorders which are driven by fear and behaviours associated with this,” registered occupational psychologist Suzanne Guest told Newsweek, “We think of anxiety as being about worry, however many disorders are under the umbrella of anxiety disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, panic disorder and fatigue.”
Dr. Clare Plumbly, a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety and trauma, told Newsweek that it comes as part of our fight or flight response and is “designed to keep us out of danger.”
She added: “When it’s severe the symptoms of anxiety can get in the way of daily functioning.”
It can manifest as worrying about different day-to-day issues, concerns over becoming sick, or be triggered by social situations.
What Are the Symptoms of Anxiety?
The main symptom many will think of when it comes to anxiety is changes to thought patterns where you may feel worried about situations that could seem irrational to others.
“Emotional symptoms may include a general of overall sense of nervousness or dread, described by some as a constant sense of impending doom,” Caroline Plummer, therapist and psychologist at CPPC London said.
“There is also a tendency with anxiety, to allow our thoughts to spiral and start imagining worst case scenarios even if their chance of occurring is slim to none.”
You can also experience changes in your behavior as a result of this worrying such as avoiding socializing, being hypervigilant, constantly seeking reassurance from others, and checking behaviors.
Guest added: “Physically we see symptoms such as raised heart rate, sweating, shaking, faster breathing, feeling nauseous and sleep disturbances.”
Has COVID Impacted Mental Health?
Both Guest and Plumbly have noticed an increase in mental health difficulties.
“In my clinic I’ve particularly noticed an increase in Health Anxiety and OCD presentations which are anxiety disorders that are focused on illness and contamination,” Plumbly said.
“People have either relapsed or their symptoms have become worse.”
“An amount of worry is normal and healthy for us, it keeps us safe, but is it something we need to manage,” Guest added.
With the pandemic came circumstances that gave people reasons to be fearful, as many lost connection with friends and family and worried for their loved ones’ safety. While some faced job losses and financial insecurity.
“I believe we need to look after our mental health, like we look after our physical health,” Guest continued.
“Things that help keep us mentally healthy do include diet and exercise, but also good sleep, social contact, routines, clear roles and boundaries.
“A lot of the ways we manage mental health became disrupted.”
Plumbly called the experiences of the past 18 months “collective trauma,” and trauma takes a long time to recover from.
“Anxiety thrives off uncertainty as it makes us feel less safe,” she explained.
“Human connection is very healing after trauma because oxytocin is released when we have positive interactions with people we like. But the pandemic has kept us apart from our loved ones for a long time so we have been missing out on the benefits of this.”
What Should I Do If I Am Experiencing Anxiety for the First Time?
When experiencing anxiety for the first time, Plummer advised trying to rationalise some of your thoughts.
“If you are experiencing social anxiety for example and telling yourself ‘my friends don’t really like me’ – look for evidence of that.
“The chances are, all the evidence will show the contrary and what you are telling yourself will be based purely on a feeling – possibly a very overwhelming feeling, but still just a feeling.”
“It can also be helpful to talk to someone you feel comfortable with and they may also be able to help you rationalise your concerns.”
Plumbly said a stepped approach is recommended for new anxiety symptoms.
For mild symptoms, she advised learning more about the condition and reading self-help books approved by experts in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) like the Overcoming franchise.
If after that you need more support, try speaking to your primary care physician or find a therapist that works for you.
She added that if you are in crisis, speak to your physician for an urgent referral.
When it comes to knowing when is the right time to seek help, Plumbly added: “If you are struggling to manage your worries, and your thoughts are becoming intrusive or really impacting your daily life or how you feel about yourself, it’s definitely time to get some help.”