Beware of COVID-19 Anxiety

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, anxiety disorders and major depression were on the rise across the United States. COVID-19 has now significantly escalated this problem. “The coronavirus pandemic is pushing America into a mental health crisis,” reported the Washington Post earlier this month. “Federal agencies and experts warn that a historic wave of mental-health problems is approaching: depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide.”

In March, seven in ten Americans said their lives have been disrupted “a lot” or “some” by the coronavirus outbreak, according to a survey published by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The tracking poll, conducted March 25–30, found that 45 percent of adults say the pandemic has affected their mental health, and 19 percent say it has had a “major impact.” Most people surveyed also said they see no end in sight with three-fourths saying “the worst is yet to come.” 

“If we expect to suffer, we are anxious,” Charles Darwin wrote in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, “if we have no hope of relief, we despair.” American psychology pioneer Robert Plutchik once described anxiety as a “combination of anticipation and fear.”

Given the impact of widespread fear, it seems certain that there is a lot of COVID stress and psychological trauma out there at the moment. Like many other organizations, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) is doing its best to support people with helpful information and other resources. 

On their website, ADAA provides helpful tips and strategies from their “mental health professionals - as well as personal stories of triumph - to help you or a loved one struggling with anxiety around the coronavirus or with general health anxiety concerns.”


How badly are you affected? In a recent blog post on Psychology Today, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., introduced a quick test to determine a person’s COVID-19 anxiety level. No doubt inspired by the generalized anxiety disorder seven-item scale known as GAD-7, it utilizes seven short statements to identify individuals with significant COVID anxiety.

You can take this test by rating yourself on each item using a 1–7 scale where 1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree.

  • I am most afraid of COVID-19.
  • It makes me uncomfortable to think about COVID-19.
  • My hands become clammy when I think about COVID-19.
  • I am afraid of losing my life because of COVID-19.
  • When watching news and stories about COVID-19, I become nervous or anxious.
  • I cannot sleep because I’m worried about getting COVID-19.
  • My heart races or palpitates when I think about getting COVID-19.

If your score is around 17, your level of COVID-19 anxiety is about average, based on a Russian-Belarusian study connected with this test. The largest number of individuals in that study scored between 12 and 22, which is a rating of about  2–3 per item. “Given that the total range of scores across all participants was 7 to 34, this result suggests that COVID-19 anxiety is indeed a measurable phenomenon, ” writes Whitbourne.

We have to keep in mind, though, that this is just a quick ad-hoc test to analyze a new phenomenon, and that the study connected to it didn’t involve Americans. But we do know that high levels of anxiety and depression are correlated with substance misuse.  

“Given the focus of the authors [of the study] on harmful substance use, [they] also suggest that knowing the signs of COVID-19 fear can also help prevent or reduce what can become problem behaviors that develop in response to this fear,” warns Dr. Whitbourne. 

If you have scored high on a depression or anxiety scale, seek professional help, and avoid self-medicating your symptoms with drugs and alcohol. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance misuse but you are unsure what addiction treatment services are available during the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact The Farley Center at 757.280.1154 to find out about your options.