Anxious About That Party Invitation? COVID-19 Anxiety Is Common
On June 15, California businesses will reopen to full capacity and vaccinated people won’t need to wear masks in most situations. As more people get vaccinated and restrictions loosen, it feels like things are beginning to shift. We're returning to backyard barbecues, drinking a beer with a coworker, going on first dates. But for many, just the thought is anxiety-inducing.
“It's okay to be anxious. Having anxiety related to COVID is really common,” said Itai Danovitch, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
We spoke with Dr. Danovitch about some common situations and how you can cope. (This conversation has been edited for clarity.)
Many people are feeling anxious about returning to work or social situations, even if they're vaccinated. What coping strategies would you recommend?
The best way to deal with our worries is directly. Try to say what you're worried about out loud. Saying things explicitly helps us think about how to deal with what it is that actually worries us.
It's perfectly normal to be distressed and to be disrupted by a traumatic experience, and the pandemic is a psychological trauma. How we recover from a trauma has to do with our ability to face our fears and our concerns directly and adaptively, and to be of service to others, and to reach out for help when we're distressed.
It’s normal to feel anxious sometimes — when should people seek professional help?
If the anxiety becomes so intense that it affects your sense of well being or leaves you totally overwhelmed. Those are all reasons to reach out and get professional help. There are excellent treatments for anxiety disorders, but it's important to have a clinician assess you to determine if what you're going through is part of a normal response, or whether there may be a clinical disorder that could benefit from treatment.
The pandemic put a hold on funerals and memorial services. Many people are just beginning to mourn. How can you help a friend who is grieving?
For more help:
Find 5 Action Steps for helping someone who may be suicidal, from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Six questions to ask to help assess the severity of someone's suicide risk, from the Columbia Lighthouse Project.
To prevent a future crisis, here's how to help someone make a safety plan
Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s 24/7 Help Line (Spanish available): 800-854-7771
East Los Angeles Women’s Center 24/7 crisis hotline (Spanish available): 800-585-6231
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 for 24/7 crisis counseling
There are so many people who have had to experience major losses and have not been able to memorialize those losses in the ways that we usually do. I think what you say is probably much less important than how you say it. When you are with somebody who has suffered losses during COVID, I think it's important to listen to them and ask them questions. Ask them about their experience, ask them about who they've lost, and convey to them that you're there for them and that they're not alone.
Many people turned to alcohol or other substances to cope during the pandemic. What are the warning signs of substance reliance or abuse?
There have been significant increases in substance use over the course of the pandemic. It's not uncommon for people to want to have a drink to alleviate a little bit of anxiety or stress. But if you find that you're consistently coping through drinking, if you're self-medicating, then you need to be worried, because using alcohol to medicate underlying anxiety or mood is not the most adaptive way to cope with those symptoms. It may work for a brief period of time, but over the longer term, it is more likely to cause harm than good. Mental health problems and substance use disorders are really common, and unfortunately, most people who experience them don't receive treatment for them. And that's unfortunate because treatment is effective.
You can find alcohol and substance abuse treatment providers here, or call SAMHSA’s national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for 24-hour free and confidential treatment referral and information about mental and/or substance use disorders, prevention, and recovery in English and Spanish.