Renee Watson, a healthy 43-year-old woman, has already received her two coronavirus injections. Meanwhile, the rate of Covid infection in the UK has declined and the size of our vaccinated population has increased. The lockdown is weakening, sidewalk cafes and beer gardens are swarming, and life is returning to something more normal.
But not so much for Watson, nor for those like her who may suffer – to a greater or lesser degree – from what has been called Covid Anxiety Syndrome. Watson, an entrepreneur who was once “pretty risk-taker,” feels much happier to be playing it safe now.
“I thought I would come back and come back to wanting to eat out and shop,” says the Oxfordshire mother-of-two. “But I really didn’t want to at all. I always order everything online. It’s not like me, it’s strange: I’m normally a sociable person and I like going to festivals but it’s too risky at the moment.
Watson’s response to easing the lockdown is not that uncommon, psychologists say. It is not yet clear how many people will be affected by residual Covid anxiety after vaccination, but there are fears that a significant minority will find it difficult to readjust, especially as the increase in unlocking allows large overcrowded groups and large events to recur.
While many of us take the opportunity to socialize and travel normally, some fearfully cling to the safety behaviors forced upon us during the pandemic. What was once a rational response to danger has become an “inappropriate” response as the danger recedes.
It was Marcantonio Spada, professor of addictive behaviors and mental health at London South Bank University, and Ana Nikčević, professor of psychology at Kingston University, who identified and named the phenomenon of anxiety syndrome Covid-19 .
At the start of the pandemic, they hypothesized that there would be a number of coping behaviors that people would adopt in relation to the perceived threat of Covid, which, while initially useful, could over time. become problematic, especially during the reintegration process. These behaviors – which can include not touching things, avoiding using public transport, worrying and monitoring our surroundings and other people for the presence of the virus – could potentially keep us “stuck”, have- they suggested.
“In people who use these coping strategies consistently, excessively, on a daily basis, with the idea that they will keep them safe, [it] may inadvertently ‘lock them up’ in fear and distress related to Covid-19 and hamper their reintegration and return to normalcy, ”the researchers say.
The data they collected in the United States and the United Kingdom confirms their theory. Their results suggest that those most exposed to the virus are more prone to Covid anxiety syndrome. But Spada believes that one in five people may find it difficult to return to normalcy and that women under the age of 40 could be particularly affected, as other research has shown this population to be the most psychologically affected by the pandemic. .
For Watson, who has studied immunology, it is the uncertainty surrounding the virus that troubles her. “I am a strong supporter of vaccines, but Covid has been so unpredictable it has not behaved as we expected a virus like this,” she said. “So while I think the vaccination is definitely going to give me a level of protection, I don’t think we yet fully know what that protection will look like, and with many variants emerging, we don’t know how the current vaccine will be effective. protect us from emerging strains. So I don’t necessarily want to put myself in danger. Children who go back to school are quite risky. “
Thoughts like these are found in online message boards. “The virus is not gone,” wrote a Gransnet user last month. “Even if like me you have had both vaccinations, there is no guarantee that a variant will not present itself and will require more and different vaccines. I don’t mean to get stupid now just because someone says we can. Another replied: “I have gotten used to living the way I do now and I will have a hard time living normally again.”
Richard, a 53-year-old man from north London who works in real estate, says his concerns center on others not playing by the rules – and the vaccine not guaranteeing 100% protection . “I had my vaccination 12 days ago, but I could still receive Covid,” he says. “Even though I was not [severely] sick, I could still have side effects or long Covid. I feel nervous. You feel a little ‘bah bullshit’ if you ask your friends how many people will be attending when you visit, but I want to put myself at minimal risk. ”
Experts say cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be helpful in “actively breaking these negative cycles of thought and action,” says Dr Victoria Salem, an endocrinologist and researcher at Imperial College London.
Salem, who worked on a study of Spada syndrome, saw evidence of this in his own practice in patients of different ages. “We’re seeing it even in people who have been fully vaccinated and it’s worrying because very soon we expect people to go back to much more normal routines,” she says.
Owen O’Kane, former NHS clinical manager for mental health and author of Ten times happier, predicts an increase in anxiety disorders as we emerge from lockdown, not only centered on fear of Covid itself, but also broader concerns about reinstatement. “I see people who weren’t socially anxious now struggling to ease lockdowns and have to interact socially. Also an increase in the number of people finding public spaces claustrophobic or too crowded. “
The fear of missing out has become, for some, the fear of going out. O’Kane, a psychotherapist, suggests that part of the population will suffer from what he calls “post-pandemic stress disorder” and says, “We won’t see the real impact until the pandemic is completely over. finished. “
In fact, the true extent of the problem is likely to be greater than what is evident now. “The trauma aspect of this situation has been underestimated,” he says. “A lot of people, to some extent, have experienced trauma. We’ve been locked up for a year overall, all of our routines have changed, we’ve watched horrible headlines every day, and are constantly immersed in a culture of fear. It will undoubtedly traumatize people.
Clinicians can help by encouraging people to “get out of fear mode” and start making gradual behavior changes, he says. “You encourage people to give up on safe behaviors and say ‘it makes you more anxious.’
Professor Nikčević is generally optimistic. “We believe that the majority of people will be able to publish these coping strategies [eventually], ” she says. “We must gradually encourage [them]… So that people can, over time, loosen these mental controls.
For Watson, it will be about watching how things play out. “I don’t think rushing back to densely populated areas right now is going to do any of us a favor,” she said. “I’m just going to take it slow and see what happens.” “