Coping With Anxiety Over COVID-19 NPR's Renee Montagne speaks to psychologist Maggie Mulqueen about how COVID-19 has affected her patients suffering from anxiety.

Coping With Anxiety Over COVID-19

Coping With Anxiety Over COVID-19

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NPR's Renee Montagne speaks to psychologist Maggie Mulqueen about how COVID-19 has affected her patients suffering from anxiety.


Nervousness, a sense of impending doom, uncontrollable worry - these are all common symptoms of anxiety disorders. Last week, the first national survey in China on the psychological effects of the coronavirus outbreak shows an uptick in those symptoms. And in the U.S., where anxiety affects 40 million adults, therapists say their patients are having a difficult time coping with their feelings in this moment.

Maggie Mulqueen is a psychologist from Brookline, Mass. We reached her at member station WBUR. Welcome.


MONTAGNE: Now, I know you have just come to the studio from seeing several of your patients this morning, and they are dealing with their anxieties. What are they telling you?

MULQUEEN: It's all I've been hearing hour after hour for about the last two weeks. But I think a particularly poignant meeting that I had this morning was with a client of mine who was up most of the night worried about - she lives in an apartment building - and what if she needed to do her laundry in the one washer and dryer that there is for the building and somebody in the building was sick? And should she do her laundry or not?

So one of the things that I think is really important to mitigate against anxiety is for us to feel productive and not just experience paralysis. So I suggested that when she goes home, she writes up a little note, puts it under the door of the 11 other units in her building and just asked to start a list of people's names, emails and telephone numbers so that people in the building could know each other because it's much easier to ask help from somebody if you know their name than if you don't.

MONTAGNE: Well, there is another thing. Clearly, you're a psychologist. And you have patients who, among them, have anxiety disorders. But why do you think they're coming to you particularly about this subject? - I mean, because, theoretically, they could come to - go to their doctor or they could tune in to the news. They could look to the government.

MULQUEEN: So that's a really great question. I mean, I had a client come yesterday who said to me, so what do I think about the virus? And I - you know - and I said to her, in what context do you mean that? And she said, well, you're the person I trust, so I want to know what you think about the virus. You know, the people in charge have not done a very good job of telling us in a very clear, consistent way what we need to do to keep ourselves safe. And one of the things I'm trying to do is help people step it back and say, OK, what can we do today? How can you be prepared? How do you stay, you know, appropriately aware of the changing news but not get paralyzed?

MONTAGNE: Do something in the moment...

MULQUEEN: Do something.

MONTAGNE: ...That gets you to the next step, which gets you - what? - a sense of control?

MULQUEEN: Purpose. I think one of the most important things we need is to have a sense of purpose. Another thing I suggested to somebody else I saw today is I said, you know, I wish when people were going to the store and hoarding all these, you know, toilet paper, whatever, they would also be buying aluminum pans that they could make meals for other people and leave on their doorstep. You know, you will have done good and feel so much better about yourself.

MONTAGNE: You know, though, you hit on something just now that it's interesting. It's become almost a joke that the toilet paper cannot be found...


MONTAGNE: ...On, you know, drugstore shelves...

MULQUEEN: Anywhere.

MONTAGNE: Anywhere.


MONTAGNE: What do you make of the hoarding?

MULQUEEN: So I think one of the real challenges here is that we live in an individualistic culture versus a collectivist culture. This moment in time really asks us to think differently, to think about caring for other people and to understand our interconnectedness.

MONTAGNE: At the risk of sounding like one of your patients...


MONTAGNE: ...Are you personally worried about COVID-19?

MULQUEEN: Well - so I start my day less anxious. But after listening (laughter) for six or seven hours about it, by the end of the day, I'm pretty anxious.

It's always interesting in my field when, as a therapist, I am going through the same experience as my patients in real time. That was certainly not true at 9/11. That was not true during the Boston Marathon bombings. Those are the two, you know, large examples that I can think of of sitting tight in my practice and being there hour after hour while I was also personally being impacted by those events. This is an added strain that any kind of health care provider right now is also living this in real time.

MONTAGNE: Maggie Mulqueen is a psychologist in Brookline, Mass. Thank you for taking the time to join us.

MULQUEEN: Thank you very much. *

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