The COVID-19 outbreak is creating an increase in anxiety that turns the treatment of the mental condition completely on its head, Paul Gionfriddo, the CEO of Mental Health America told The Cannigma in an interview this week.
“Typically, people with anxiety, the worry they have is about the future and many of the tools we use to treat anxiety is to tell people to live more in the present,” Gionfriddo said. “But here, it’s been turned on its head — it’s the present that’s more difficult so we have to provide them with the tools to have more hope and remind them to look six months down the road, nine months down the road. It’s a challenge when people are living day to day.”
He added that people who are dealing with the effects of severe anxiety need health care attention but at the same time might be hesitant to go to health care facilities because of the risk of infection. This compounds the anxiety and sense of isolation, and people have trouble seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, according to Gionfriddo.
Using cannabis to cope with anxiety and isolation
While research into the topic is still ongoing, medical cannabis does have the ability to shift stress levels, and many patients have found that it can provide relief for anxiety. In fact, it is one of the more common reasons people give for using marijuana. That said, research has shown that in higher doses it can actually cause anxiety and a sense of paranoia, which could potentially make quarantine and panic over the coronavirus more difficult.
Dr. David Gordon, MD, an integrative and cannabis medicine physician and owner of 4 Pillars Health & Wellness in Denver told The Cannigma that “many patients are beneficially using cannabis during these challenging times. Anxiety is one symptom for which patients consistently use cannabis and there is currently a surge in fear and anxiety.”
He added that for most patients, products that are lower in THC — the main psychotropic component of cannabis — and higher in CBD (cannabidiol) are more effective for anxiety. For most people, using products with a level of THC that “passes their personal threshold” can worsen anxiety.
That said, the euphoric effects of THC could help people living now in isolation, according to Gordon.
“Many use cannabis to enhance their enjoyment of various activities, and when you’re stuck around the house, things can get mundane,” Gordon said, adding that “during this period of increased anxiety and isolation the calming and euphoric effects of cannabis can both be valuable and patients can often achieve both these effects simultaneously with appropriate dosing and products.”
Severe anxiety linked to the coronavirus pandemic
In recent weeks, Gionfriddo said that his organization, Mental Health America, has seen a sharp rise in people taking its online anxiety test, and found more than 1,000 people who have extreme anxiety that they can link directly to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We are seeing a great increase both in people who would not normally have anxiety who have it now, but also we’ve had people with moderate cases of anxiety who now have severe anxiety,” Gionfriddo said.
Along with the anxiety and fear that the pandemic has wrought, there is also the isolation that so many people are feeling in quarantine.
“The problem of the isolation is that it causes us to look inward and you have to avoid human contact. What that does is it forces us more into the present and more into what we’re feeling and makes it harder to get out of that.”
Focusing on things that give you joy and comfort
Gionfriddo said he hopes that perhaps this will make people more sympathetic to the plight of criminals we put in extreme isolation. He added that people dealing with anxiety and isolation should focus on doing the things that typically give them joy and comfort, and to use the technology at hand to reach out as much as possible.
“I often tell people that if you typically text someone then now you might want to do an audio call. And if you typically do an audio call you might want to do a video call and use the technology we have to connect and see the expressions on peoples’ faces. We’ve been using our technology to distance ourselves, but we can use it to bring ourselves together as well.”
In early March, the World Health Organization stated that the COVID-19 outbreak “is generating stress in the population,” and released a set of recommendations for how the general population, health care workers, caretakers, and parents can cope with the situation. The recommendations call on people feeling isolated to stay connected and maintain their social networks and their daily routines as much as possible.
It also advises them to “pay attention to your own needs and feelings,” pursue healthy activities that they enjoy and find relaxing, and to avoid news reports or rumors that make them uncomfortable.