Elizabeth Cohen, who has practiced psychology for 15 years with a specialty in anxiety, estimates that 20 percent of her clients have actually seen their symptoms alleviate in recent weeks. Roughly the same portion have seen their symptoms worsen, she says, while the remainder have seen little change. Elizabeth Visceglia, a psychiatrist who has practiced for 16 years (and, full disclosure, is the wife of our editor-in-chief Noah Shachtman), has not seen such a substantial number of her clients’ symptoms alleviate amid the outbreak—only one out of 20 she’d seen during the week of our interview fell into that category. But both offered several possible reasons that a person with a history of depression and anxiety might find some relief at a time like this.
A big part of anxiety, Cohen pointed out, is the anticipation of the unknown—worry about something bad that will inevitably happen. With the outbreak, she said, “a lot of people are saying, ‘The terrible thing happened.’ So in a lot of ways you’re not in the anticipating state.”
Ironically enough, another factor that might be helping some people with depression and anxiety cope during this crisis is a habit that, in normal life, we try to avoid. Many people who experience depression and anxiety find themselves separating from their immediate situations, either intentionally or unintentionally—a mental process called dissociation. A person might, for instance, focus intensely at work before coming home to disappear into a TV show or endlessly scroll through Instagram.
“That’s not great when we’re in our lives because that means you’re missing a lot of your life,” Cohen said. “However. Right now… if you’re a master dissociater, you’re going to be in a better place… You have, basically, a toolbox of how not to have to deal with all the scary feelings.”