COVID-19 and Anxiety Treatment Outcomes: Diving into the Data 

By Mia Drury, BA


With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people reported increased symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression – myself included. I was entering my senior spring of college, and suddenly sent home, with no guarantee of setting foot on campus again, and the job I had lined up after college fell through. A few months later, I graduated college, job-less and isolated at home. With these sudden life changes, I began feeling overwhelmed by uncertainty – of the world, and of my own future. 

Ultimately, realizing I could not manage these feelings alone, I sought out a provider for Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Over the course of several months, I started learning skills for understanding and tolerating my intense emotions and anxiety. In the moment, I used these skills to navigate the challenging transitions I was experiencing in my life. 

As the pandemic’s effects reverberated through 2021 and 2022, I started my first post college role as a research assistant, and I took my DBT skills with me. While I still had times of feeling anxious, I felt a renewed sense of strength and resilience, and that I had a greater handle on how to handle difficult periods in life. I now look back on that time in 2020 with gratitude – for teaching me that not everything is under my control, and that I can survive and thrive amidst uncertainty. 

My experience is similar to many others, and aligns with recent research conducted by Dr. David H. Rosmarin, founder of Center for Anxiety, and Dr. Steven Pirutinsky. 

While many studies have reported on how the COVID-19 pandemic affected anxiety symptoms, the authors of this study were interested in looking at how the pandemic affected treatment for anxiety (specifically Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) treatment).

To do this, Drs. Rosmarin and Pirutinsky examined data on 764 adult clients receiving outpatient treatment at Center for Anxiety. As a naturalistic study, data was collected from real world settings, rather than in a lab controlled study. Thus, data on these clients were pulled from electronic health records and assessments conducted through the treatment process. 

The clients were then divided into four groups:

  1. Pre-pandemic: started treatment prior to the beginning of the pandemic.
  2. Pandemic onset: started treatment between January and March of 2020.
  3. During pandemic: started treatment between April and December of 2020.
  4. Post pandemic: started treatment after January 1, 2021 (this time frame was selected based on when vaccines were made first available).

The authors hypothesized that anxiety would be higher during the pandemic onset time frame. Interestingly, however, they did not detect a statistically significant increase in anxiety during the first four months of the pandemic. 

Regarding the effects of anxiety treatment, the authors reported a few main findings: 

  • Regardless of when clients started treatment, the  anxiety symptoms improved with the same trajectory. They characterized the treatment trajectory as a rapid improvement in anxiety symptoms over the first 25 days of treatment, followed by a more gradual period of improvement over the course of 75 days. After 100 days, anxiety levels were similar to those at 75 days, suggesting maintained treatment effects. 
  • Clients who were in treatment prior to the pandemic onset (i.e pre pandemic group) did not experience a notable increase in anxiety during the first few months of the pandemic. 

Similar to my own experience – where my DBT treatment for anxiety has had a lasting effect on my life – as well as the current literature, the author’s findings support the idea that CBT and DBT treatments for anxiety have lasting effects. Additionally, due to the unique context of the study, findings support the effectiveness of these treatments, even when delivered during exceptional circumstances. 

Finally, as the second finding suggests, perhaps I would have been better off navigating the challenges of the pandemic had I sought out therapy prior to its start. Of course, we cannot change the past, but it is still possible to plan for the future. So, learn from me – if you are on the fence about starting CBT or DBT treatment, I would say go for it! These treatments have a strong evidence base, and the study described here offers another point of support for the effectiveness of CBT and DBT in any global climate.


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