Is It Worry, or an Anxiety Disorder?
These are anxious times, as a sometimes-deadly virus has invaded communities in Philadelphia and around the world. But for vulnerable individuals, normal worries about abnormal times can turn into something more.
Living amid the COVID-19 pandemic can be a trigger for clinical anxiety disorder, or make existing symptoms worse. How can you know when it’s time to talk to a professional?
We asked for advice from David Greenspan, MD, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia, and Brian Gallagher, PsyD, Program Director of the Einstein Healthcare Network’s Department of Outpatient Behavioral Health and Psychiatry.
In general, they said symptoms that are frequent, last more than two weeks or cause disruptions in our lives should prompt a call to a mental health professional.
What is anxiety?
Dr. Greenspan: Anxiety is a mood or emotion, usually a response when something frightening is happening, During the COVID-19 experience, there is much to fear, such as getting the disease or having someone you care about get it. Other likely fears are related to losing one’s job.
And for most of these experiences time heals. People are very adaptable for the most part, and what is horrendous in the moment often feels less so as time goes on. Generally, one’s emotional life should return to normal.
Some people might have more difficulty than others coping with stress and uncertainty in a time like this. What are the signs that you may be developing an anxiety disorder?
Dr. Greenspan: Anxiety disorder is when the feelings of anxiety just don’t go away and are clearly interfering with one’s ability to love, learn and work. In general, anxiety disorder:
- Disrupts the ability to sleep
- Steals the appetite (or causes cravings)
- Makes it hard to sit still
- Causes continuous worry, even when nothing new can be learned from it
These symptoms make it hard to feel well, to socialize, to attend to lessons and school or to work effectively at one’s job.
Dr. Gallagher: There are a number of different symptoms of anxiety that people experience along a spectrum. Frequent and intense worry, panic attacks and uncontrolled fear may come with a host of physical sensations, including:
- Shortness of breath
- Numbness or tingling
- Muscle tension
- Increased headaches
- Stomach or bowel upset
What can people do to cope with anxious feelings?
Dr. Gallagher: Healthy ways to do this include finding self-soothing techniques such as:
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Learning ways of focusing attention in the moment
We need to avoid the quick and easy ways to escape, like alcohol, smoking or other drugs.
However, for some types of anxiety one needs to learn to confront fear and anxiety to learn that the thing they fear is generally safe and OK to experience. This may require professional help.
When should someone speak with a professional about anxiety?
Dr. Gallagher: Ask yourself these questions:
- How frequent are your symptoms?
- How long have they lasted?
- Are symptoms interfering with sleep, work or other daily routines?
- Are symptoms interfering with relationships?
If it has been more than a couple weeks now and if symptoms are frequent and disrupting, it may be time to contact a professional.
Dr. Greenspan: Professionals often use a series of questions to evaluate symptoms. You can use an online self-assessment, the GAD-7 questionnaire, to see whether it may be time to seek mental-health counseling.
The City of Philadelphia also provides online self-assessment tools for anxiety and other mental health conditions.
How can people access mental health care at Einstein now?
Dr. Gallagher: We are offering telehealth visits. Call 215-456-9850 for an appointment.