Dr Robert London

Is COVID-19 leading to a mental illness pandemic? - March 25, 2020

We are in the midst of an epidemic and possibly pandemic of anxiety and distress. The worry that folks have about themselves, families, finances, and work is overwhelming for millions.

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

Dr. Robert T. London

I speak with people who report periods of racing thoughts jumping back in time and thinking of roads not taken. They also talk about their thoughts jumping forward with life plans of what they’ll do to change their lives in the future – if they survive COVID-19.

Consider what this uncertainty is doing to people who have an underlying emotional problem that is well-controlled with care (and even without care). Those people are suffering even more. Meanwhile, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder that had been under control appear to have worsened with the added stress.

Social distancing has disrupted our everyday routines. For many, there is no work, no spending time with people we care about, no going to movies or shows, no doing discretionary shopping, no going to school. Parents with children at home report frustration about balancing working from home with completing home-schooling packets. Physicians on the front lines of this unprecedented time report not having the proper protective equipment and worrying about the possibility of exposing their families to SARS-CoV-2.

We hear stories about the illness and even deaths of some young and middle-aged people with no underlying conditions, not to mention the loss of older adults. People are bursting into tears, and becoming easily frustrated and angry. Add in nightmares, ongoing anxiety states, insomnia, and decreased concentration.

We are seeing news reports of people stocking up on guns and ammunition and a case of one taking – and dying from – nonpharmaceutical grade chloroquine in an effort to prevent COVID-19.

I spoke with Juliana Tseng, PsyD, a clinical psychologist based in New York, and she said that the hype, half-truths, and false information from some outlets in the popular media are making things worse. Dr. Tseng added that the lack of coordination among local, state, and federal governments also is increasing fear and alienation.

As I see this period in time, my first thoughts are that we are witnessing a national epidemic of trauma. Specifically, what we have here is a clinical picture of PTSD.

PTSD is defined clearly as a traumatic disorder with a real or perceived fracture with life. Isolation (which we are creating as a way to “flatten the curve” or slow the spread of COVID-19), although that strategy is in our best personal and public health interests, is both painful and stressful. Frustration, flashbacks of past life experiences plus flashbacks of being ill are reported in people I’ve spoken with. Avoidance, even though it is planned in this instance, is part of the PTSD complex.

What can we as mental health professionals do to help alleviate this suffering?

First, of course, we must listen to the scientific experts and the data – and tell people to do the same. Most experts will say that COVID-19 is a mild or moderate illness for the vast majority of people. We also must encourage people to observe precautions outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as distancing from people, hand washing, and avoiding those who are ill. Explain to people that, currently, there is no vaccine to prevent COVID-19. Treatment is mainly supportive, and some medication trials are being explored. However, we can empower people by helping them to develop skills aimed at increasing the ability to relax and focus on more positive aspects of life to break the chain of the stress and tension of anxiety as well as control the PTSD.

For more than 40 years, I have helped people master relaxation techniques and guided imagery. When taught properly, people are able to use these techniques on their own.

To begin, I teach people how to relax, using a simple three-point method:

  • Get comfortable in a nice chair, and slowly count from one to three. At the count of one, do one thing: “roll your eyes up to the top of your head.”
  • At the count of two, do two things, “close your lids on your eyes and take a deep breath.”
  • At three, exhale slowly, relax your eyes, and concentrate on a restful feeling of floating.
  • Do this for about 30 seconds to a minute.
  • Count backward, from three to two to one and open your eyes.

The person will notice how nice and restful they will feel.

After that exercise, get the person to move to the graduate level and go beyond just relaxation. In the following exercise, people can go into a relaxed state by imagining a movie screen. Tell the person to do two things:

1. Look at the imagined movie screen and project on it any pleasant scene you wish; this is your screen. You will feel yourself becoming more and more relaxed. The person can do this one, two, three or whatever times a day. The exercise can last 1 minute or 5.

2. Incorporate the 1, 2, 3 relaxation described earlier, allowing yourself to float into this restful state and go to your movie screen. Now, on the screen, imagine a thick line down the center, and on the left side, project your worries and anxieties and fears. The idea is to see but not experience them. Then shift to the ride side of the screen, and again, visualize any pleasant scene you wish. Again, do this for 1 minute or 5 minutes, whatever works.

You will notice that the pleasant scene on the right will overcome the anxiety scene on the left, in that pleasantness, in most instances, overcomes anxiety. For many, these techniques have proved very useful – whether the problem is anxiety or fear – or both. In my experience, these techniques are a good beginning for controlling PTSD and successfully treating it.

We are in the midst of what could be the biggest public health crisis that America has faced since the 1918 pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu. The lockdowns, quarantines, and the myriad of other disruptions can lead to alienation. In fact, it would be strange for us not to experience strong emotions under these extreme conditions. Life will get better! In the meantime, let’s encourage people to hope, pray, and use relaxation techniques and guided imagery approaches to help control anxiety, worry, stress, and issues related to PTSD. These approaches can give our minds and bodies periods of relaxation and recovery, and ultimately, they can calm our minds.

Dr. London is a practicing psychiatrist and has been a newspaper columnist for 35 years, specializing in and writing about short-term therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and guided imagery. He is author of “Find Freedom Fast” (New York: Kettlehole Publishing, 2019). He has no conflicts of interest.