Dr Robert London

COVID-19: Helping patients overcome what might feel like an existential crisis

Publish date: February 12, 2021

Way back in the spring of last year, I wrote about a pandemic of posttraumatic stress disorder that would descend upon us because of COVID-19. At the time, we were told that, by summer – June or July 2020 – all the steps we needed to take to stay ahead of the virus, including remaining socially distant, and yes, even wearing masks, would be over. Life would get back to normal.

Dr. Robert T. London, a psychiatrist who practices in New York.

Dr. Robert T. London

Little did we know that a national plan for our safety, including making sure that we had enough masks and PPE, would not be forthcoming, and that so many thousands of Americans would perish, leaving millions of distraught families and friends.

So many people are suffering. Mothers, for example, are struggling to balance remote schooling with additional child care and domestic work. More than 2 million women left the U.S. workforce last year between February 2020 and October 2020, according to a report by the National Women’s Law Center. Even before COVID-19, loneliness among young adults was considered a domestic epidemic – and the social isolation forced by the pandemic has worsened those trends, research shows. These trends are creating so much more anxiety, depression, despair, and yes, even PTSD. As mental health professionals, we have a lot of work to do in educating people about coping skills and in providing treatments when appropriate.

Experiences take on new meaning

One day a friend and professional colleague called me, and he sounded quite distraught. He had not been able to reach his primary care physician and thought that, as a physician, I might have some insights about his symptoms. He began telling me that something really strange was happening whenever he walked around outside with his mask on. He couldn’t breathe with it on, he told me. In addition, his eyes teared up, his nose started running, and his eyeglasses fogged up so much that he couldn’t see where he was going. He was really anxious, nervous, and felt a great sense of despair – and disorientation. He did not fully understand what was happening and didn’t know whether those disorienting symptoms were mask-related or whether he was incubating some yet undiagnosed illness.

I addressed his concerns in the moment by assuring him that I, too, had been experiencing similar challenges with fogged-up glasses and a runny nose; many people were experiencing some of the same things. I explained that even I had called an allergist to find out whether I might be allergic to some component in the mask and whether he had seen those symptoms in his practice.

Albeit, those issues tied to masks are relatively minor, compared with the enormous psychological toll this pandemic has taken on some people. But it’s clear that different people suffer different effects in light of the marked changes in life and lifestyles caused by the pandemic.

‘It’s something else’

Two people I know, both professionals, recently told me that in their social lives they constantly feel tired and anxious, and that their concentration has diminished. They worry more about their futures, they told me separately. (They don’t know each other.) They reported going through daily life “like being on automatic.” Both said they were far too irritable and reported feeling that social isolation had dulled their thinking.