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With the current coronavirus pandemic bringing job layoffs, shelter-in-place orders and rising death tolls, it goes without saying that people are stressed and anxious.
According to an Axios-Ipsos Poll of 1,092 adults in the United States conducted between March 13 and March 16 — a week where, along with layoffs and stay-at-home orders, medical resources were starting to become scarce — four out of five Americans said they were worried about the pandemic. And a stark 22% said their mental health got worse in the week the poll was taken.
Mental health professionals say anxiety is a natural response to the unknown, so it's normal even for people who don’t have a history of anxiety.
“The entire crisis we are dealing with is out of the ordinary for almost everyone,” Sanya Hussain, Qualified Mental Health Professional at Thresholds, a Chicago-based agency that provides services and resources for people with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders, told The Active Times over the phone. “At times, people who manage stress well tend to feel they need to play the ‘survivor’ or the ‘savior’ role during such times. It’s important to remember that it is OK to have a meltdown, too.”
Even though it’s perfectly fine to feel anxious, with so much uncertainty floating around, it’s useful to find coping mechanisms to lessen the burden just a bit. To help, we consulted Hussain and other mental health clinicians about accessible ways to help manage anxiety relating to coronavirus.
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Mental health professionals cannot stress this enough — it is absolutely essential to allow yourself to feel sadness, anger, grief and anxiety no matter the source of these emotions. “It's especially normal to feel this way over what you've lost and missed out on already, as well as what could or may not happen in the future,” said Sherin Khan, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Senior Director of Organizational and Workforce Development at Thresholds. “While other people may have big and immediate hardships (such as being sick themselves, having a loved one who is sick, or losing a job), we are all mourning the loss of something and it's OK to feel that way. Allow a release of these emotions.”
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Just like your body, your mind — particularly an anxious, overworked mind — needs an adequate amount of rest. But Hussain notes that there is a fine line between adequate sleep and excessive sleep. “Since people are at home more now, they tend to have a disturbed sleep schedule; staying awake until dawn and waking up late afternoons, and that pattern can disturb the circadian rhythm and lead to secondary issues such as poor concentration, migraines and decreased cognitive functioning.” She also recommends being mindful of what time of the day you consume caffeine or sugar.
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Similar to sleep, physical activity and exercise helps balance dopamine and serotonin, which are neurotransmitters that impact anxiety and mood. And regular physical activity can help alleviate anxiety and depression in a lot of people. “This does not mean one has to start lifting heavy weights or go on strenuous jogs. A simple walk in the park or attending to household chores can help as well,” adds Hussain.
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With almost all 50 states implementing a stay-at-home order at least until the end of April and some until May, it’s no surprise people are beginning to feel lonely and anxious about when they’re going to see their friends and family again. The mental health professionals we talked to all spoke on the importance of staying connected by means of video chatting, social media or even a quick phone call to say hello. Even if you don't feel like "socializing," checking in with someone you care about and who cares about you can be very helpful in making you feel less alone.
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According to Mary Blaney-Rychener, Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Chicago and Director of Clinical Practices at Thresholds, one key to reducing anxiety in these times is to try to closely follow the same sleeping and eating schedule as you did pre-COVID-19. “The daily routine can serve to ground us and lend a sense of normal in abnormal times,” she said. This is especially helpful for those working from home, where the workday spills into home life and vice versa. Blaney-Rychener suggests a routine that includes time for eight hours of sleep, nutritious meals and taking breaks from work.
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Unless what you’re reading or watching is feel-good, happy news, step away from media relating to coronavirus. Nothing is more nerve-wracking than a headline saying the death toll is climbing across the country or that the virus spares no one regardless of age. “I strongly endorse the idea of taking a break from COVID-19 related media. Too much and repeated information can cause increased anxiety,” said Blaney-Rychener. If cutting it out for extended periods is challenging, she recommends people set a time limit of 15 minutes a day and try not to read the news before bed.
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“Often the surface cause of anxiety is our negative thinking and keeping these thoughts to yourself leads to rumination and disorganized thinking,” said Hussain, who recommends journaling to her clients who deal with anxiety. “Picture it this way, you’re scooping thoughts out of your mind onto a piece of paper, freeing up some space in your head.” And journaling doesn’t have to be hand-written in a binded diary, it can be in the form of a note in your phone or even a text to yourself.
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Lists are a great tool for many things, and they can also help relieve anxious feelings by putting you in the driver’s seat. “Anxiety stems from a fear response in the brain, and people become more fearful when they feel that they are not in control,” explains Blaney-Rychener. Grab a piece of paper or open up a document on your computer and make a list of things you can and cannot control, and then try to focus on the things you can control.
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According to the American Psychological Association, there have been over 200 studies conducted on the effectiveness of mindfulness-based therapy for reducing stress, anxiety and depression. However, managing anxiety is not one-size fits all. While Hussain noted that meditation may not be effective for everyone, for many, slipping away to consciously focus on yourself does have a proven positive impact on relaxing the body and mind. “Deep and mindful breathing is a classic tool used for anxiety. That combined with repetitive phrases or movements can be very effective in alleviating anxiety and depression,” she added.
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Another way to manage anxiety is through creative outlets such as drawing, painting and dancing — any form of cathartic release can work. Hussain noted that more immersive methods are especially useful for children or individuals who simply cannot or prefer not to write in a journal or express their thoughts to others.
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If you’re having a lot of anxious thoughts, it’s important to remember that you can't predict what will happen tomorrow or in the future. And Khan shared a technique to help people stay in the present moment, even if just for a moment. Try to think of three things you can hear, three things you can smell, three things you can touch, three things you can taste and three things you can see. To make this a more enjoyable experience, perhaps go to a calming space and put on your favorite music.
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In this digital age, you can find internet forums, social media groups and blogs to help you cultivate relationships with people going through the same things as you. If you’re hesitant to share your anxious feelings with family or friends, there are many online support groups that can be utilized. According to Hussain, research has consistently shown that social support is one of the strongest factors in recovery. And sharing your vulnerability with others can validate that you are not alone, and this pandemic is a global shared experience.
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Some of you may find that more unconventional “out of the box” (pun intended) methods work better. This anxiety box idea from Khan is a perfect quarantine activity, and it also helps with anxiety. Here’s what you do: Put a photo of something you love, a smell of something you love (like an essential oil), the feel of something you love (like a soft scarf), and the taste of something you love (like a chocolate) inside a box. When you feel distressed, open your box and deploy these items that bring you comfort.
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Engaging in mindfulness and breathing exercises can be an effective way to stay grounded and present. Experts suggest what’s called “4-7-8 breathing,” which involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds and exhaling for 8 seconds.
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If you regularly visit a therapist, don’t stop. If your therapist offers a telehealth option, continue to be in touch by utilizing it and don’t keep anxious thoughts to yourself. Those of you who have consistent sessions may find the face-to-face interaction beneficial and needed, even if it’s virtual.
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To fill the time, you can learn a new language, take up crocheting or baking, and you can also learn relaxation techniques. Many of these can be found on YouTube, and the trick is to practice the techniques that work for you so often that they become second nature when you need them. “As the body is trained to achieve a relaxation response, the mind can more easily follow,” Khan added.
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An easy distraction away from anxious and stressful thoughts is channeling all that energy into doing something you love. If you have a passion, whether it’s playing an instrument, gardening or devouring books, do it even more than before. Social distancing may be tough, but it has given us more opportunities to dabble in old hobbies.
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