From the Editor

During a viral pandemic, anxiety is endemic: The psychiatric aspects of COVID-19

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Fear of dying is considered “normal.” However, the ongoing threat of a potentially fatal viral infection can cause panic, anxiety, and an exaggerated fear of illness and death. The relentless spread of the coronavirus infectious disease that began in late 2019 (COVID-19) is spawning widespread anxiety, panic, and worry about one’s health and the health of loved ones. The viral pandemic has triggered a parallel anxiety epidemic.

Making things worse is that no vaccine has yet been developed, and for individuals who do get infected, there are no specific treatments other than supportive care, such as ventilators. Members of the public have been urged to practice sensible preventative measures, including handwashing, sanitizing certain items and surfaces, and—particularly challenging—self-isolation and social distancing. The public has channeled its fear into frantic buying and hoarding of food and non-food items, especially masks, sanitizers, soap, disinfectant wipes, and toilet paper (perhaps preparing for gastrointestinal hyperactivity during anxiety); canceling flights; avoiding group activities; and self-isolation or, for those exposed to the virus, quarantine. Anxiety is palpable. The facial masks that people wear are ironically unmasking their inner agitation and disquietude.

Our role as psychiatrists

As psychiatrists, we have an important role to play in such times, especially for our patients who already have anxiety disorders or depression. The additional emotional burden of this escalating health crisis is exacerbating the mental anguish of our patients (in addition to those who may soon become new patients). The anxiety and panic attacks due to “imagined” doom and gloom are now intensified by anxiety due to a “real” fatal threat. The effect on some vulnerable patients can be devastating, and may culminate in an acute stress reaction and future posttraumatic stress disorder. There are also reports of “psychogenic COVID-19” conversion reaction, with symptoms of sore throat, dyspnea, and even psychogenic fever. Paradoxically, self-isolation and social distancing, which are recommended to prevent the human-to-human spread of the virus, may further worsen anxiety and depression by reducing the comfort of intimacy and social contacts.

Individuals with depression will also experience an increased risk of symptom breakthrough despite receiving treatment. Stress is well known to trigger or exacerbate depression. Thus, the sense of helplessness and hopelessness during depression may intensify among our patients with pre-existing mood disorders, and suicidal ideation may resurface. Making things worse is the unfortunate timing of the COVID-19 pandemic. Spring is the peak season for the re-emergence of depression and suicide attempts. The ongoing stress of the health crisis, coupled with the onset of spring, may coalesce into a dreadful synergy for relapse among vulnerable individuals with unipolar or bipolar depression.

Patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are known to be averse to imagined germs and may wash their hands multiple times a day. An epidemic in which all health officials strongly urge washing one’s hands is very likely to exacerbate the compulsive handwashing of persons with OCD and significantly increase their anxiety. Because their other obsessions and compulsions may also increase in frequency and intensity, they will need our attention as their psychiatrists.

The viral pandemic is eerily similar to a natural disaster such as a hurricane of tornado, both of which physically destroy towns and flatten homes. The COVID-19 pandemic is damaging social structures and obliterating the fabric of global human relations. Consider the previously unimaginable disruption of what makes a vibrant society: schools, colleges, sporting events, concerts, Broadway shows, houses of worship, festivals, conferences, conventions, busy airports/train stations/bus stations, and spontaneous community gatherings. The sudden shock of upheaval in our daily lives may not only cause a hollow sense of emptiness and grief, but also have residual economic and emotional consequences. Nothing can be taken for granted anymore, and nothing is permanent. Cynicism may rise about maintaining life as we know it.

Rising to the challenge

Physicians and clinicians across all specialties are rising to the challenge of the pandemic, whether to manage the immediate physical or emotional impacts of the health crisis or its anticipated consequences (including the economic sequelae). The often-demonized pharmaceutical industry is urgently summoning all its resources to develop both a vaccine as well as biologic treatments for this potentially fatal viral infection. The government is removing regulatory barriers to expedite solutions to the crisis. A welcome public-private partnership is expediting the availability of and access to testing for the virus. The toxic political partisanship has temporarily given way to collaboration in crafting laws that can mitigate the corrosive effects of the health crisis on businesses and individuals. All these salubrious repercussions of the pandemic are heartening and indicative of how a crisis can often bring out the best among us humans.

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