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How COVID-19 Is Deepening Anxiety Disorders

Mental health professionals in Argentina note an uptick in people seeking help, especially patients already struggling with issues like hypochondria and OCD.

On the second day of the quarantine in Buenos Aires
On the second day of the quarantine in Buenos Aires
Verónica Frittaoni

BUENOS AIRES — The situation is extreme. It's an economic, social and a healthcare crisis that exempts nobody and will leave its mark on all. It is a global emergency. And even in the coolest of heads, anxiety is creeping in as people struggle to navigate these uncertain times.

So far, those with the emotional tools to manage their feelings are riding the wave of events without succumbing to undue fear or disproportionate concern. But for those who struggled with anxiety even before the epidemic, people who had trouble leaving their homes even in the best of times, or hypochondriacs who struggle against a constant obsession with disease, the coronavirus has become a double threat. It may or may not attack their physical health, but is most definitely harming their emotional state.

"The generalized stress this pandemic is generating has resulted in a 20% relapse rate," says Gabriela Martínez Castro, head of the Argentine Center for Specialized Studies in Anxiety Disorders (CEETA).

Like other mental health professionals in Argentina, Castro says there's been an uptick in recent weeks in patients seeking help. Many people being treated for anxiety disorders and phobias and who were gradually recovering are now relapsing, she explains. And what's triggering them, the specialist adds, are the restrictions being put in place.

"Many patients have become much worse, to the point of provoking symptoms again, in spite of the progress we were making," she says.

Gustavo Bustamante, president of the Phobia Club Foundation, says that among patients who already had a phobic framework or specific disorders like Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), panic attacks or agoraphobia, anxiety levels have risen considerably.

"These are people who were already stressed about money and the pandemic's consequences," he says. "Even before the government began issuing guidelines, most of my patients had abandoned their daily routines and were in self-confinement. Some had to move up their appointments or seek closer attention, as the level of anxiety and worry the illness is generating is making them feel vulnerable."

Virtual platforms have become essential in providing emotional support. "We are implementing a strategy to give them support through online services," Bustamante says. Among other things, his foundation is offering more after-hours or night night consultations.

The Argentine anxiety disorder center has also adopted remote consultations for those who need them most. Patients are being encouraged to continue their therapies, says Martínez Castro. "Not only are they not stopping but we have people who are consulting more than once a week," she adds.

OCD patients with cleaning-related rituals are convinced their longstanding fears were not baseless after all.

Specialists say that for patients with GAD and OCD and forms of hypochondria, behavior patterns are now even more intense. Rossana Speranza of the Argentine Association of Anxiety Disorders (AATA), says patients "overestimate the level of danger." People overly concerned about health show a "heightened observation of the general state of the body, and you have to work to make sure they won't go to night pharmacies," she adds. "With OCD, patients with cleaning-related rituals boost this kind of behavior, convinced that their longstanding fears were not baseless after all."

Susana Dagos, a 63-year-old podologist and agoraphobic, is familiar with a lot of this conduct. She had managed, since 2012, to control her fear leaving her home. She'd been attending workshops and even managed to travel abroad. She was "well enough," she says. But with the pandemic, she's struggling once again.

"There is fear, which is what makes the phobia reappear," she says. "I decided not to travel on public transport. I took the precaution two weeks ago. I don't want to be with people all packed together... I'm much more afraid."

Liliana Traber, coordinator of the Trauma and Anxiety clinic at INECO, a public research body, points out that there are different kinds of fears and phobias, and that to treat them it's important to distinguish one from the other. "Fearing the illness or its contagion is not the same as being really worried about the future, about what will happen with the economy, for example, or your family," she says.

What many patients have in a common is a fear of death — of their own death and the death of others. And the panic over the pandemic, says Martínez Castro, "can arouse and trigger latent disorders, as it can work as an unleashing factor."

Bustamante of the Phobia Club says the coronavirus outbreak will also impact people who hadn​"t previously sought mental health advice. He says there is precedent for this in Argentina, where there 2001 financial crisis prompted a 300% increase in therapy visits. For many, he says, the trauma of the crash soon became a "constant worry" about falling into poverty that "became chronic, and changed the way daily lives developed."

The pandemic will have a similar effect, Bustamante says. "It will alter many habits in society generally," he adds. "And many people who previously had no history of mental illnesses or disorders, or thought they were less at risk, will from also be living in a heightened state of alarm."

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus global pandemic. The insidious path of COVID-19 across the planet is a blunt reminder of how small the world has become. Our network of multilingual journalists are busy finding out what's being reported locally — everywhere — to provide as clear a picture as possible of what it means for all of us at home, around the world. To receive the daily brief in your inbox, sign up here.

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For Seniors, Friendship May Be More Important Than Family

Even if the aging and elderly tend to wind up confined to family circles, Argentine academics Laura Belli and Danila Suárez explore the often untapped benefits of friendship in our later years.

Photograph of two elderly women and an elderly man walking arm in arm. Behind the, there are adverts for famous football players.

Two elderly women and a man walk arm in arm

Philippe Leone/Unsplash
Laura F. Belli and Danila Suárez Tomé

Updated Dec. 10, 2023 at 10:10 p.m.

BUENOS AIRES — What kind of friendship do people most talk about? Most often it is childhood or teenage friendships, while friendships between men and women are repeatedly analyzed. What about friendships among the elderly? How are they affected when friends disappear, at a stage when grieving is already more frequent?

Argentines Laura Belli and Danila Suárez Tomé, two friends with PhDs in philosophy, explore the challenges and benefits of friendship in their book Filosofía de la amistad (Friendship Philosophy).

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They consider how friendships can emerge later in life, in profoundly altered circumstances from those of our youth, with people living through events like retirement, widowhood, reduced autonomy or to a greater or lesser degree, personal deterioration. All these can affect older people's ability to form and keep friendships, even if changes happen at any stage in life.

Filosofía de la amistadexplores the place of friendships amid daunting changes. These are not just the result of ageing itself but also of how one is perceived, nor will they affect everyone exactly the same way. Aging has firstly become a far more diverse experience, with increasing lifespans and better healthcare everywhere, and despite an inevitable restriction in life opportunities, a good many seniors enjoy far greater freedom and life choices than before.

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