Background: Increases in emotional distress in response to the global outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic have been reported. So far, little is known about how anxiety responses in specific everyday public life situations have been affected.
Method: Self-reported anxiety in selected public situations, which are relevant in the COVID-19 pandemic, was investigated in non-representative samples from the community (n = 352) and patients undergoing psychotherapy (n = 228). Situational anxiety in each situation was rated on a 5-point Likert scale (0 = no anxiety at all to 4 = very strong anxiety). Situational anxiety during the pandemic was compared with retrospectively reported situational anxiety before the pandemic (direct change) and with anxiety levels in a matched sample assessed before the pandemic (n = 100; indirect change).
Results: In the community and patient sample, indirect and direct change analyses demonstrated an increase in anxiety in relevant public situations but not in control situations. Average anxiety levels during the pandemic were moderate, but 5-28% of participants reported high to very high levels of anxiety in specific situations. Interestingly, the direct increase in anxiety levels was higher in the community sample: patients reported higher anxiety levels than the community sample before, but not during the pandemic. Finally, a higher increase in situational anxiety was associated with a higher perceived danger of COVID-19, a higher perceived likelihood of contracting COVID-19, and stronger symptoms of general anxiety and stress.
Conclusions: Preliminary findings demonstrate an increase in anxiety in public situations during the COVID-19 pandemic in a community and a patient sample. Moderate anxiety may facilitate compliance with public safety measures. However, high anxiety levels may result in persistent impairments and should be monitored during the pandemic.