What doctors wish patients knew about post-COVID anxiety

  • June 16, 2021


What doctors wish patients knew about post-COVID anxiety

JUN 11, 2021


Sara Berg

Senior News Writer


Mental health has been negatively impacted during the pandemic. And as states begin to transition back to a pre-pandemic life, it may cause increased anxiety about reopening for many. While stress, fear, worry, sadness, exhaustion and numbness are normal—and expected—emotional responses to a health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact on mental health cannot go ignored. 

In addition, physical distancing and remote work have been necessary to cut the spread of COVID-19, but those measures can take a toll on people’s mental health by making them feel isolated and lonely, further increasing stress and anxiety. As more people become fully vaccinated and states begin to reopen, it is important to learn how to cope, to improve mental health and well-being.

“People are feeling overwhelmed, uncertain, anxious, helpless, frustrated, stressed and exhausted,” said AMA member Lisa MacLean, MD, a psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health System, an AMA Health System Program Partner. “With the worsening of—and gradual decline in mental health—we are also seeing anger, depression, insomnia and increased substance abuse as well as a reported increase in isolation and loneliness.”

In a recent discussion, Dr. MacLean shared what physicians wish patients knew about the pandemic’s effect on mental health and how to cope with this added stress.

Navigate anxiety about reopening

“Some people can’t wait to finally feel free and go back to the way we were living without masks. However, for many, the lifting of the mask mandates creates fear and anxiety,” said Dr. MacLean. That’s because “for over a year we’ve been told that masks protect each other. We’ve been trained to fear the virus and that is not something that is going to go away overnight.

“We’ve also been told to distance ourselves from people, so it is going to create stress,” she added, noting that “not knowing who has been vaccinated or not adds additional anxiety.”

To overcome anxiety about reopening, “step back and pause,” but remember to stay up to date on the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “and then give yourself permission to take it slow,” Dr. MacLean recommended, emphasizing the need to “respect that everyone might be in a different place when it comes to wearing masks,” but to “be open and try not to fold under social pressure.”

“It’s going to take time for people to feel comfortable again and, for some, they may continue to wear masks indefinitely,” she said. “It’s only with time and people seeing the COVID numbers continue to drop that anxiety will be reduced and people will get more comfortable.”

“We are going to have to go through an uncomfortable stage before we get comfortable again,” Dr. MacLean said.

Recognize the mental health impact

Some of the mental health conditions experienced during the pandemic are “anxiety, trauma-related disorders, depression, domestic violence, substance abuse disorders and even suicide,” said Dr. MacLean, adding that “it’s critical right now that people acknowledge the stress of the pandemic.”

But what are the symptoms of stress and how does it affect mental health? They include:

  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling powerless.
  • Low motivation.
  • Feeling tired or burned out.
  • Sadness.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Insomnia.


“For some front-line workers who have witnessed high death volumes, you might see acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] or secondary traumatic stress,” she said. “We are also seeing compassion fatigue and burnout from chronic workplace stress and exposure to traumatic events related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”