As anyone living with anxiety knows, the world is filled with potential triggers that threaten mental health. 2020 has been particularly challenging for people all over the world, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The year has also seen much social unrest, with individuals taking to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and fighting against major societal injustices. With so many serious events happening simultaneously, it’s understandable that many people have found themselves experiencing panic attacks or anxiety. But knowing how to deal with new or changing mental health problems isn’t always easy or obvious.
“Being able to mindfully acknowledge the flood of emotions your brain and body are experiencing in the moment and letting them move through you, as opposed to stuffing them down will help regulate your overall anxiety,” says Trisha Andrews, MS, MFT, a therapist at the Amanda Atkins Counseling Group in Chicago. “Often as a coping mechanism, people stuff overwhelming emotions down deep until those emotions overflow our bodies and our brains causing us to feel an even more intense, overwhelming and almost uncontrollable wave of emotion.”
Coronavirus, racial injustice, and coping with anxiety
It’s worth noting that it’s completely normal to feel some degree of anxiety during a time of great upheaval, with an ongoing global pandemic, economic instability, and continued civil and political unrest stemming from racial inequality. And it’s important to realize that you are most definitely not alone. In fact, a recent SingleCare user survey of more than a 1,000 people found that as many as 59% of participants believed that COVID-19 had impacted upon their mental health in some way, with 48% feeling that self-isolation had been one of the most challenging factors of recent times.
“Spiking anxiety is not necessarily a good thing or bad thing,” says Grand McDonald, Psy.D., of Clarity Clinic in Chicago. “It is a response to a scary, uncertain, and constantly changing time, something that we as a world are experiencing together.”
According to the DSM-V, common anxiety symptoms include fast heart rate, shortness of breath, anxious thoughts and difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and GI problems.
How to deal with anxiety
Whether your anxiety predated 2020, or the events of the year have affected your mental health, there are many ways you can manage the condition—and its emotional and physical symptoms. If it starts to feel unmanageable, seek the support of a healthcare provider such as a licensed therapist or psychiatrist, and ask friends and family members for help. (If you are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you should immediately call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.)
Here are some of the other ways you can deal with anxiety at this truly tumultuous time.
1. Seek teletherapy
Living through a pandemic has meant that many people have found themselves sheltering in place, and unable to carry out their normal routines or attend face-to-face appointments. One of the biggest changes to happen because of COVID-19 is that many appointments have been taking place remotely, by phone or video chat, to limit the risk of spreading the virus. If you were already seeing a therapist prior to the pandemic, hopefully your treatment plan has continued, albeit with a location change. But if therapy is something you’d like to newly explore as a way to manage your feelings of anxiety, teletherapy—or an online support group—might be an appropriate option right now.
Therapy can help you identify and alleviate the symptoms of anxiety. Research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in the treatment of many anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety.
2. Choose mindfulness and meditation
In this busy and often stressful world, most of us forget to take a step back and check in with ourselves as often as we should. Instead, we get caught up in day-to-day stressors and can easily become overwhelmed by seemingly normal everyday activities. Which is why mindfulness and meditation can be such important tools, particularly when events like a pandemic are completely out of our control.
“There are free online resources and tools for helping teach deep breathing and meditation,” says Elise Guthmann, LMFT, Clinical Program Director at Evolve Ojai Residential Treatment for Teens. “Meditation can help soothe panic in the body and calm the mind. One of my favorite meditations in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is called the Loving Kindness Meditation. It’s a way of wishing yourself and others well, especially at times when you are feeling helpless, which is why it’s a perfect meditation to practice for the next few months.”
If you’re interested in mindfulness, you can seek out a therapist who practices in DBT. If you’re new to relaxation techniques, there are a number of mental health apps you can explore in the coming months.
3. Limit screen time
When you’re stuck at home, and don’t have your usual routines to distract you, it can be all too easy to turn to your cell phone, laptop, smart TV, or tablet. As a result, you might find yourself glued to your devices in a way you weren’t prior to the pandemic. While the internet helps us to stay connected to the ones we love, social media can also create added stress in our lives.
There is a lot going on in 2020: Black Lives Matter protests continue around the globe, news about the pandemic changes on a daily basis, families are forced into remote learning and working, people aren’t able to see loved ones, a presidential election draws near, and many people are facing economic uncertainty.
All of that may be important to keep updated on, but it’s more important to know when to step away from the screen. Guthmann says, “Media consumption can trigger anxiety for many people.”
Candida Wiltshire, LCSW, LISW-CP, a licensed online counselor and clinical social worker agrees and explains, “With all of the different triggers in 2020, the most effective way of managing anxiety is knowing how to limit exposure. Learning to limit how much information is being consumed is a key factor in managing anxiety simply because you take control of what you allow to affect your mental and emotional state.”
It’s also important to remember that stepping back isn’t the same as opting out. As Wiltshire explains, “Setting limits is different from ignoring what is occurring. You are still connected and aware, but you take back a sense of control over how much you are triggered daily. It’s okay to take a mental break, we all need them. Doing this promotes self-care, self reflection, and a place to feel safe in the midst of unrest.”
4. Get enough sleep
While it might seem obvious to suggest that sleep is crucial during a pandemic, it’s often the first aspect of a person’s life to be affected when their mental health changes. Disrupted routines and a lack of physical activity make it harder to fall asleep easily, and not resting for long enough each night can affect how you handle the day.
“During these unprecedented times, sleep isn’t always the first thing on everyone’s mind, but it factors in a great deal with quelling anxiety,” says Bill Fish, a certified sleep science coach and general manager at the National Sleep Foundation. “Most of us are working from home, the kids are home from school, and our schedules have been turned upside down.”
As we each adjust to the changes created by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to work on our sleep patterns. And although it might be tempting to work from the comfort of your bed during this unpredictable time, that’s most definitely not recommended.
“You need a space associated with work, and a place associated with rest,” Fish says. “If the lines are blurred it can lead to both poor sleep and raised anxiety.”
5. Create your own daily schedule
Maintaining your usual schedule is particularly difficult when a global pandemic is limiting social interactions. Everyone’s day-to-day lives have completely changed in 2020. Social distancing limits where you can go and who you can spend time with. Even still, it’s important to develop a daily schedule, as routine can be important when you’re living with anxiety or another mental health condition.
This is especially important for families, with children experiencing their own anxiety from remote learning, being stuck at home, and unable to see friends and family.
“By creating that structure, you’re able to control your limited environment,” Guthmann says. “Create a daily schedule that works for everyone, and stick to it. That can be the stability that eases your anxiety when the situation outside your door seems to change every day.” Even adding minor activities to your calendar, like a 10-minute meditation, setting aside an hour to read a book, or planning a short walk can make all the difference.
6. Try home workouts
One of the ways that many people manage their mental health is by maintaining their physical health. However, most gyms have been shuttered due to the pandemic and group workouts aren’t the safest option. Although it can be much more challenging to motivate yourself, there are a multitude of tools, including subscriptions and apps, which give you access to workout classes from the comfort of your own home. If you want to get your exercise outdoors, an app like Map My Run will help track your progress. Meanwhile, apps like Peloton and Fiit give you a plethora of workouts you can do in your living room.
“Going to the gym may not be an option right now—as a response, we discover new ways to stay fit,” says Thomas McDonagh, Psy.D. a clinical psychologist and founder of Good Therapy SF. “This could be joining virtual workout classes, buying at-home workout materials, or finding a secluded place in your neighborhood to workout. We acknowledge the loss and anxiety we feel and from there we do our best to adjust together, creating a new normal.”
Finding a sense of community right now, even if it’s via an online workout class, could also help buoy your mental health at a strange and lonely time.
7. Don’t skip medications
For many people living with pre-existing health conditions, who might be more susceptible to COVID-19, leaving the house is particularly scary during the pandemic. Additionally, for those with anxiety or depression, it could be hard to venture out. Simple tasks, such as collecting prescriptions from a pharmacy or grocery shopping, can be terrifying to navigate—but it’s important not to skip your medication.
A prescription delivery service could save a lot of stress and anxiety and be one less thing to worry about. You can contact SingleCare’s pharmacy delivery helpline at 800-222-2818 to explore how to set up home service now.)
If you lost your health insurance because of COVID-19 and are stressed about not having coverage, there are options for you to explore. Read about them here.
8. Be kind to yourself
It should go without saying that, now more than ever, cutting yourself some slack is imperative. It’s extremely easy to find fault with yourself for missing a deadline or getting behind on housework, but with the extra pressures placed upon all of us in the world’s current health crisis, being kind is crucial.
“Give yourself a gentle reminder that despite how uncomfortable or unpleasant you feel, the anxiety is really just your brain trying to keep yourself safe,” says Max Maisel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in treating OCD and anxiety disorders. “It’s also important to allow your anxiety to exist without trying to fight it or control it. When we struggle against our anxiety, we become anxious about being anxious, which maintains our worry and fear for much longer than we want it.”
Dr. McDonagh adds: “Most people blame themselves for how they think and feel, but this is like blaming yourself for the weather. You can’t control it, you can only dress appropriately. The truth is we cannot control the initial thoughts or emotions we experience. We can only control how we respond to them.”
9. Eat healthily
When you’re struggling with worsening anxiety, it can be all too easy to reach for the takeout menu or only eat junk snack foods. However, ensuring that you keep to a balanced diet, filled with fresh food and nutrients, can have a huge impact on your body and mind.
“Eat nutritious food,” suggests Rashmi Byakodi, BDS, a health expert at Best for Nutrition. “Avoid caffeine and alcohol; these may worsen your condition. Pay attention to what you are eating, develop mindful eating.”
Much like keeping to a steady routine each day, maintaining a healthy food schedule will also benefit your mental, and physical, health.
10. Identify your triggers.
People experience anxiety for a myriad of reasons, and it’s important to identify what causes your condition to get worse. Sometimes it’s possible to eliminate certain triggers from your life; although in 2020, things like the coronavirus pandemic and a neverending news cycle have become the “new normal” and not something we can simply erase from our lives.
“Many people are in a state of distress and debilitating anxiety because they simply don’t want the current state of things to be the new truth,” Guthmann says. “The very first step in coping with the reality of 2020 is accepting the fact that it is the new reality.”
Carrie Lam, MD, says the first step in treating it is understanding the root cause of anxiety. “Is it environmental triggers, stress, underlying hormonal imbalance, neurotransmitter imbalance, sympathetic overtone,” she suggests asking yourself. “Make sure to look for why it could be happening with your doctor and try to fix that.”
By managing the stressors in your life, and the potential sources of anxiety, it’s possible to manage your condition. Whether the stressor is something simple like how you handle work deadlines, or something more complicated like a relationship, it’s important to put your mental health first.
“The stress of the world will always be there; it’s the way we handle it internally that makes a difference,” explains Susan Petang, a certified anxiety and stress management coach.
11. Ask your doctor about anti-anxiety medication.
If the level of stress and anxiety you’re currently dealing with is starting to feel out of control, it might be time to ask your doctor about anti-anxiety medications. While there is no size fits all when it comes to medication, your healthcare provider will be able to talk through possible options with you, and decide the best course of treatment for you to take.