Henry*, a CPA tasked with auditing several large corporations in the area, is performing his job from home as a precaution during the COVID-19 outbreak. Whenever Henry leaves his house, he faithfully follows the recommended safety guidelines. He always wears a mask in public, washes his hands often and stands at least six feet away from others.
Still, Henry fretted terribly about becoming ill from the coronavirus, enough that it affected his day-to-day activities.
“It was constantly on my mind, and I worried night and day about getting infected,” says Henry, 53. “And everything that I heard on the news about the COVID-19 pandemic just made my anxiety worse.
“At times, I was extremely nervous and uptight and unable to sit still. At other times, I felt weak and tired and had to lie down. I often had difficulty concentrating on my accounting work because I was so worried about the virus and the pandemic. And I was having more frequent panic attacks.
“Whenever I have a panic attack, my heart races uncontrollably and my breathing gets very fast and heavy. It feels like I’m having a heart attack, and I’m completely immobilized. The pandemic really turned my life upside down.”
Henry’s anxiety continued to intensify, so he visited his primary care provider, who referred him to Edward Zawadzki, DO. Dr. Zawadzki is a board-certified forensic and adult psychiatrist at Lighthouse Health Group, a full-service psychiatric practice in Jupiter that offers traditional and leading-edge treatments for mental health disorders.
“Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric problem in the United States,” Dr. Zawadzki observes. “More than 40 million people in this country suffer from some type of anxiety spectrum disorder. The spectrum includes generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorder.
“Currently in our practice, we are seeing a significant upturn in the number of patients such as Henry whose anxieties have spiked during this pandemic. Most are experiencing increased frequency of panic attacks or depression symptoms. We refer to this phenomenon as the COVID-19 blues.”
The cause of the COVID-19 blues mirrors that of anxiety disorders in general: people feel that they cannot control events or their environment. With the extra requirements placed on individuals during the pandemic – staying home, wearing masks, social distancing, home-schooling children – people feel even less control.
“This feeling of being extraordinarily out of control of their lives results in a surge in patients’ anxiety or depression symptoms,” Dr. Zawadzki reports. “That is the essence of the COVID-19 blues.
“In these cases, patients with anxiety issues may feel heightened nervousness, sleep disturbances, appetite disturbances, irritability and panic attacks. Patients with a depressive disorder may feel more hopeless, perhaps even suicidal. They may feel helpless to do anything positive and have more crying spells.”
The heightened symptoms occur due to a concept known as psychosocial stress, Dr. Zawadzki informs. When someone goes through a period of psychosocial stress, the body reacts by increasing negative feelings and behaviors.
“Traditionally, psychosocial stressors are events such as job changes, moves and relationship changes – a breakup for example,” the doctor describes. “Sometimes, a stressor is a good thing such as getting married. Although marriage is positive, it causes stress and results in a temporary worsening of symptoms. The COVID-19 pandemic is a negative source of psychosocial stress.”
Dr. Zawadzki urges people who are experiencing an exacerbation of anxiety or depression as well as those facing a new onset of symptoms to reach out to a qualified mental health professional. There are treatments that can effectively manage the effects of the COVID-19 blues, he assures.
“People who are experiencing this phenomenon are not alone,” Dr. Zawadzki asserts. “We are all living in a very unstable, tumultuous world that is affecting our mental health. But the psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists at Lighthouse Health Group are well-versed in pandemic psychiatry.
“Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric problem in the United States. More than 40 million people in this country suffer from some type of anxiety spectrum disorder.” – Dr. Zawadzki
“Pandemic psychiatry takes into account the psychosocial stress associated with COVID-19,” Dr. Zawadzki describes. “When we initially evaluate a patient, we establish their baseline symptoms, what they are experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our staff is trained in speaking with patients and uncovering other problems that are affecting them. Most people have stressors beyond the pandemic.”
Patients may have anxiety related to recent protests or possibility of violence. Their symptoms may worsen after watching looting, burning buildings or shootings on television. Some already have relationship problems or challenges with their children. All of these concerns must be unpacked and processed by the mental health provider.
“Once the extent of the symptoms and stressors are identified, we can examine the most appropriate treatment options,” Dr. Zawadzki acknowledges. “Those typically include psychotherapy with or without the benefit of medication.”
“After I spoke with Dr. Zawadzki at length, he recommended that I meet with one of the psychologists on staff at Lighthouse Health Group,” Henry relates. “The doctor also prescribed an anti-anxiety medication to take for a few months. He said it should help with the panic attacks, so I agreed to take it.”
People who are working from home due to COVID-19 may experience their own version of the COVID-19 blues.
“For many people, working from home causes anxiety because going to the workplace was their only social outlet,” Dr. Zawadzki explains. “Going to work may be their only opportunity during the week to get out of the house or get away from an abusive relationship.
“In some cases, people who work outside the home have colleagues that they are close to with whom they can chit-chat over lunch or during breaks, happy hours or other social events after work. When this is taken away, it can be a huge emotional shift for the individual.”
When people are suddenly forced to work from home, they can begin to feel and act like drones, mindlessly doing their duties with no social interaction. Often, they don’t leave home and have little to do other than work. Depending on coping skills and any underlying mental health issues, this situation can be an enormous psychological struggle for them.
“But there is a silver lining in terms of working from home,” Dr. Zawadzki stresses. “Many people are more comfortable working in their home environment, and there are studies that show that people are actually more productive at home than they are in a work space.
“In any circumstance, people who are experiencing symptoms of the COVID-19 blues are not alone. If they are being more reclusive, feeling hopeless about the pandemic, are more tearful or having worsening anxiety, they should be promptly evaluated at a practice skilled in pandemic psychiatry. The COVID-19 blues can be more difficult to treat later.”
Henry reports that the psychotherapy and medication are helping him manage his anxiety symptoms.
“I don’t worry as much and can concentrate on my work,” he says. “I’ve only had a couple of panic attacks, and they’ve been very mild. The treatment is definitely working for me. I’m glad I went to Lighthouse Health Group.”