COVID-19 and mental health: Studies show new normal levels of trait anxiety, increased risk of substance abuse

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COVID-19 and mental health: Studies show new normal levels of trait anxiety, increased risk of substance abuse
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The latest study aimed to understand the effects of COVID-19 worry and fear on abstainers, pre-COVID-19 users and those who started using substances like alcohol, cigarette, cannabis and stimulants during the pandemic.

COVID-19 pandemic has affected more than just the physical health of the world population. The lack of resources, uncertain diagnosis, isolation, lockdowns and economic losses have resulted in a lot of people feeling constant fear and anxiety.

Older people, caregivers, healthcare professionals and those at risk of severe disease have also had to make drastic changes to their routine and the stress if the situation itself has negatively affected interpersonal relationships.

Now, Dr Michael Zvolensky and his colleagues at the University of Houston claim that the COVID-19 pandemic will have long term impacts on the mental health of people, spanning years after it is over.

The findings of the studies, published in the journals Behavioral Research and Therapy and Psychiatry Research, also link the constant worry and stress to an increased risk of substance abuse among some people.

The many unknowns

Fear is a normal human reaction towards something that is unknown and potentially threatening, such as COVID-19. Though older people and those with chronic health conditions are said to be at high risk of severe COVID-19, it would be wrong to assume that all seemingly healthy people would survive the infection. So even though infections kill millions globally every year, the added social isolation and economic anxiety add to the uncertainties that come with COVID-19.

Previously, a study done in the US had shown that people, in general, are showing higher levels of trait anxiety (tendency to respond to an anxiety stimulus). If the COVID-19 anxiety gets added to these basic levels, then there might be a new normal level of anxiety for a lot of people.

The authors of the study indicated that it is likely that those with pre-existing conditions like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may observe their symptoms to be amplified in the wake of the pandemic.

Those with OCD may especially find their habits and triggers exacerbating since OCD symptoms mostly revolve around cleaning and contamination obsession. In fact, some people have already reported worsening symptoms due to public health recommendations regarding cleaning and handwashing.

Health professionals or coronavirus patients who have had a prolonged hospital stay and had to face several medical procedures may come out of this pandemic with their own version of trauma and pandemic-related PTSD.

On the other hand, it may be possible for some people to develop resilience as they watch themselves face and emerge from a situation with so many uncertainties.

It is not certain yet if the increased symptoms will stay after the pandemic is over or will they go down.

Increased risk of substance use

Increase in substance use has previously been associated with increased stress, anxiety and worry during disasters. Due to reduced social interactions or a positive way to cope with stress, experts indicate that people may move to substance abuse to help regulate emotions.

The latest study aimed to understand the effects of COVID-19 worry and fear on abstainers, pre-COVID-19 users and those who started using substances like alcohol, cigarette, cannabis and stimulants during the pandemic.

For the research, the scientists studied 160 English-speaking people in the age group of 18 and 65 years. All the participants were asked if they have used any such substance before the pandemic and if their habits have changed now. Those who were not using any such substances before the pandemic and were using a little or a lot now were included in the COVID-19 initiator group and those who did not use anything before or after the pandemic began were in the abstainers group.

It was found that among all the volunteers, substance use and fear and worry were highest amongst COVID-19 initiators as compared to abstainers and those who had already been using substances before the pandemic.

The study suggested that increased fear and worry during the pandemic may be associated with an increased risk of turning to substance use as a coping mechanism.

For more information, read our article on How to protect your mental health during COVID-19 pandemic

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.

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