What it’s like to have an anxiety disorder during the pandemic

Living through a global pandemic can spark anxiety in just about anyone. But for people who have an anxiety disorder, it can be crippling.

“It’s important to think about people with obsessive-compulsive disorder and other anxiety disorders because often our illnesses are invisible or not taken seriously,” Megan Williams, a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh who has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), tells Yahoo Life. 

Williams, who writes about mental health for The Pitt News, was sexually assaulted when she was 15, and developed OCD afterward. OCD is a mental health condition that happens when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions (unwanted and intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger upsetting feelings) and compulsions (behaviors to try to relieve the stress), according to the International OCD Foundation.

Williams says her OCD is largely focused around safety—she will lock a door and have “crippling panic” that she didn’t “lock it enough” and will feel the need to check three times to make sure she turned off a gas burner. But Williams says her compulsions have changed slightly with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For over two months, I didn’t go anywhere,” she says. “I went home and washed my hands until they were cracked and bleeding. The feeling with OCD is that you are out of control, and you do your compulsions to regain that control, even if they are irrational.”

Williams says she’s also struggled with news reports interfering with her mental health. “It seems now that my compulsions aren’t obsessive, but that they’re logical,” she says. Case in point: She obsessively checked her feet for “coronavirus toes” after news broke that they can be a symptom of the virus. “I mean, you can’t look at feet longer than I looked at my own feet,” she says. “Check again, check again, because something can change.”

Williams says she’s especially nervous about states re-opening. “One of the No.1 things that’s frustrating about having OCD during coronavirus is I can’t control what other people do, no matter how much my OCD is screaming at me to control what other people do,” she says. 

Williams isn’t the only person struggling right now. There are several mental health disorders that fall under the category of anxiety disorders, including general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder, and many are negatively impacted by the pandemic, psychologist Alicia Clark, author of Hack Your Anxiety, tells Yahoo Life. “This is common in the sense that the disorder has more to do with the process than with the content of the obsessions,” she says. “In a pandemic or any cultural situation like this, where there are directives for certain behaviors and a call to be extra vigilant, it can hit somebody with an anxiety disorder pretty hard.” 

Factors like unstructured time, stress of quarantining, having young children constantly at home, and self-isolation can all feed into the symptoms of anxiety disorders, says psychologist Lily Brown, director of research at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “These are all huge risk factors for anxiety,” she says.  

What, exactly, that looks like, and the particular challenges people with an anxiety disorder can face vary. But, Brown says, there are certain issues that are unique to each disorder under the pandemic.

People who have been in treatment for contamination OCD (a common form of OCD in which a person has irrational fears or compulsions around hygiene) may have found that habits they once sought treatment for—compulsively wearing gloves, avoiding public bathrooms, using hand sanitizer all the time, and wearing masks in public—are now considered normal, Brown says. “Before the crisis, people with contamination-related OCD would engage in unnecessary decontamination processes,” she says. “Now, they’re being told they’re healthy. It can be confusing.” And, as is the case with Williams, people with other forms of OCD may suddenly find their obsessive habits and compulsions have changed to reflect what’s happening in the world.

A big challenge for people with contamination OCD will be to try to alleviate their obsessions and compulsions after the pandemic is over, Brown says. “For many of us who don’t have OCD, we’re going to go back to doing what we did before,” she says. “For someone with OCD, it’s going to be challenging to try return to the public’s definition of baseline.”

People who suffer from panic disorder, a condition marked by panic attacks, or sudden feelings of terror when there is no real danger, can struggle with the lack of activities available right now, psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life. “People who suffer from panic disorder need to have a wide variety of diversions that take their minds away from ruminating about the pandemic, restrictions, and control it places on their lives,” he says. “Panic makes one feel closed-in with no way out. Diversity in diversions helps ease the closed-in feelings that make panic worse.” 

Patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a condition that causes extreme feelings of worry or nervousness about everyday things, can find themselves struggling with procrastination right now, Brown says. “It seems counterintuitive—you might think someone who is anxious all the time would want to be productive all the time— tend to struggle with perfectionism and feel like the circumstances need to be just so,” Brown says. “That makes it hard to get started on whatever kind of project they might need to do.” With all of the unstructured time many people are facing, “it’s extraordinarily challenging for people with GAD to fight through it and do the basic things that need to be done,” Brown says. People with GAD are especially prone right now to “trick themselves into thinking they’re problem-solving when they’re actually just sitting and worrying,” Brown says.

Those who have social anxiety disorder, an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others, may feel more comfortable than the general public with social distancing recommendations, Brown says. “They can feel like it’s somewhat of a gift for them,” she says. “The problem is, whenever things feel normal again, people with social anxiety disorder are going to experience a major uptick in distress.”

The fallout from all of this can be massive. “In regard to people with anxiety before the pandemic, their levels of anxiety have at a minimum doubled and, in many cases, this additional source of anxiety has resulted in them becoming disabled, and not being able to work, care for their children, or care for themselves,” Mayer says.

If you struggle with an anxiety disorder or notice your anxiety is interfering with your quality of life, Brown says it’s time to seek help. She recommends searching the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies’ therapist database to find a mental health professional near you. Keep in mind that you may not need to go anywhere to get help. “We’ve expanded a lot of telehealth options in ways we’ve never been able to before,” Brown says. “It’s possible to quickly and easily get help from home.”

To enhance the understanding around just how vast and prevalent mental illness is in the United States, we’ve created an augmented reality experience that uses color-coded sections to help visualize the lifetime prevalence for anxiety and mood disorders among adult Americans.

Place the image in front of you and walk around it to see the data sourced from the National Institute of Mental Health on adult Americans suffering from anxiety disorders, mood disorders and different parts of the mental health continuum.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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