Exploring your fishpond: Steps toward managing anxiety in the age of COVID


COVID-19’s ever-changing trajectory has led to a notable rise in anxiety-related disorders in the United States. The average share of U.S. adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and or depressive disorder rose from 11% in 2019 to more than 41% in January 2021, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie

Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie

With the arrival of vaccines, Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, MD, MPH, chair of psychiatry at Medstar Washington (D.C.) Hospital Center, has noticed a shift in patients’ fears and concerns. In an interview, she explained how anxiety in patients has evolved along with the pandemic. She also offered strategies for gaining control, engaging with community, and managing anxiety.

Question: When you see patients at this point in the pandemic, what do you ask them?

Answer: I ask them how the pandemic has affected them. Responses have changed over time. In the beginning, I saw a lot of fear, dread of the unknown, a lot of frustration about being in lockdown. As the vaccines have come in and taken hold, there is both a sense of relief, but still a lot of anxiety. Part of that is we’re getting different messages and very much changing messages over time. One day, we were still in a lockdown mode, and then a week later, we were told: If you’re vaccinated, take off your masks and do whatever you want to do. Then there’s the people who are unvaccinated, and we’re also seeing the Delta variant taking hold in the rest of the world. There’s a lot of anxiety, fear, and some depression, although that’s gotten better with the vaccine.

Q: How do we distinguish between reasonable or rational anxiety and excessive or irrational anxiety?

A: There’s not a bright line between them. What’s rational for one person is not rational for another. What we’ve seen is a spectrum. A rational anxiety is: “I’m not ready to go to a party.” Irrational represents all these crazy theories that are made up, such as putting a microchip into your arm with the vaccine so that the government can track you.

Q: How do you talk to these people thinking irrational thoughts?

A: You must listen to them and not just shut them down. Work with them. Many people with irrational thoughts, or believe in conspiracy theories, may not want to go near a psychiatrist. But there’s also the patients in the psychiatric ward who believe COVID doesn’t exist and there’s government plots. Like any other delusional material, we work with this by talking to these patients and using medication as appropriate.

Q: Do you support prescribing medication for those patients who continue to experience anxiety that is irrational?

A: Patients based in inpatient psychiatry are usually delusional. The medication we usually prescribe for these patients is antipsychotics. If it’s an outpatient who’s anxious about COVID, but has rational anxiety, we usually use antidepressants or antianxiety agents such as Zoloft, Paxil, or Lexapro.

Q: What other strategies can psychiatrists share with patients?

A: What I’ve seen throughout COVID is often an overwhelming sense of dread and inability to control the situation. I tell patients to do things they can control. You can go out and get exercise. Especially during the winter, I recommend that people take a walk and get some sunshine.


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