Anxiety levels among Americans across the country have climbed sharply, suggesting the prolonged uncertainty, social disruption and economic strain of the pandemic are taking a significant psychological toll, according to Sharecare’s “Flatten the Curve” (FTC) survey.

Financial worries, social isolation, fears about the coronavirus itself and other stressors have all combined to create the perfect storm for a looming mental health crisis, the survey reveals.

Anxiety surges, healthy habits decline

From late April to early June, Sharecare and Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), partnered with Publicis Health Media to create a “Flatten the Curve” (FTC) survey. The goal of the survey was to better understand a range of issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including adherence to public health mandates, changes in medical consumption behaviors and critical well-being factors, such as anxiety, financial stress, and lifestyle changes. 

Based on more than 115,000 responses collected from respondents in all 50 states and Washington DC, Sharecare and BUSPH uncovered a sharp increase in levels of anxiety as well as significant financial stressors, including pay cuts, dwindling retirement funds and job losses, among the Americans polled. 

The survey also revealed net negative lifestyle behavior change across individuals, including fewer hours of sleep, reduced physical activity and worse eating habits as well as increases in alcohol consumption and smoking—all of which can adversely affect people’s health and well-being.

The FTC survey found that 9 in 10 respondents reported experiencing some form of anxiety regarding COVID-19, including 5 in 10 being “very worried” or “panicked” about the disease. 

Among the survey’s other key findings: 

  • 1 in 5 respondents reported experiencing severe stress or anxiety 
  • 2 in 3 respondents admitted they were concerned about their retirement funds and the market overall 
  • 15% of respondents expressed feeling lonely 

“Based on these findings, it is even more important to encourage utilization of clinically validated information and programs to support individuals in managing their day-to-day lives, and moreover, to mitigate long-term ramifications from consistently high levels of stress and anxiety,” says Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, renowned neuroscientist and behavior change expert.

Anxiety linked to greater news consumption

Since the pandemic began, health experts have recommended that Americans consume COVID-19-related news in manageable doses from credible sources. Sharecare’s FTC survey suggests people who are overly isolated or worried during the pandemic, are not heeding this advice.

More than 6 in 10 respondents said they either cannot consume the news or are consuming even more. The survey found that 56% of respondents reported watching or reading more news than usual. These people were also more likely to indicate that they were lonely or experiencing severe stress and anxiety. 

“From individual concerns ranging from COVID-19 transmission to future economic viability, these survey findings illustrate the widespread anxiety, worry, and stress that are plaguing our nation—ironically, some of which can be attributed to the resources many consumers seek to relieve anxiety, including false information and panic-driven conversations on social media channels,” Dr. Brewer says. “Whether social media and otherwise invalidated sources are increasing anxiety levels or diminishing the severity of this deadly virus, the consequences are material,” Brewer adds.

Research conducted by Pew Research Center underscores these findings. A Pew survey of 10,239 U.S. adults conducted April 20 to 26 found that roughly 71% of those polled said they felt the need to take breaks from COVID-19-related news. Meanwhile, 28 percent reported feeling compelled to remain immersed in pandemic coverage. This survey, however, also revealed that 43 percent of respondents admitted that staying current with COVID-19 news makes then feel worse emotionally. Only 7 percent said it made them feel better. 

Complicating matters, the Pew survey found that about half of those polled had a tough time differentiating between the facts and false information about COVID-19 in the media. About two-thirds of the Americans polled said they’ve seen at least some made-up news about COVID-19—most noted that it’s causing confusion about the basic facts of the pandemic.

“Based on information from Sharecare’s FTC and Pew, we are looking at a subset of the population getting more and more hysteric, and another subset of the population ignoring a global pandemic,” Brewer says. 

Healthcare workers particularly vulnerable

While these trends for the broad population are worrisome, increased levels of anxiety and stress are not only being reported in the broader population who may not be well-informed about COVID-19 but also healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

Physicians, nurses and other essential healthcare professionals are at high risk for exposure to SARS-CoV-2, which can be understandably anxiety-provoking. This stress may be compounded by a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) across the country, leaving hospital staff less able to protect themselves, patients, and others when providing care.

About mid-way through 2020, more than 140,000 U.S. healthcare workers had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Of these people, more than 600 died as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency notes, however, these tallies do not account for all cases and deaths.

A May 2020 study of more than 400 healthcare workers published online in Psychiatry Research indicated that 64.7% were experiencing symptoms of depression, 51.6% were experiencing feelings of anxiety, and 41.2% were experiencing stress.

A separate May 2020 meta-analysis of 13 studies involving 33,062 participants found that mood and sleep disturbances were common among healthcare staff. The researchers emphasized the need to identify specific strategies to reduce the mental health risks among these essential workers during the pandemic.   

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