The world heading into 2020 was already a stressful place. Now that city and state-wide shelter-in-place orders have been enacted, it makes sense that anxiety and stress are among the CDC’s current main areas of concern.
“Don’t panic, but take it seriously” is the mantra of the time. Arming yourself with information and following reasonable precautions is the best way to control your stress, exposure and the likelihood that you will spread COVID-19 to someone else. Spending too much time on social media and excruciating over all the bad news in the world adds to the anxiety of what’s uncertain; finding truth and understanding in what youdo have control over is the key to wellbeing.
There is financial stress:Millions of people are filing for unemployment benefits, particularly those in the hospitality industry. Some of that job demand has shifted into other sectors, however (here’s a list of companies hiring nation-wide). The stock market took a significant plunge in March (although it has since started to slowly recover).
There is illness-related stress: With much still unknown about the novel coronavirus, it’s hard to tell if you’re coming down with a cold, a seasonal strain of the flu, or potentially COVID-19. Even those who are not worried about the illness themselves may be worried about their loved ones catching it. The numbers reported every day on the pandemic can be concerning. And while it is important to take the precautions very seriously, it’s also important to remember that the vast majority of peoplewho are exposed to COVID-19 recover, and most of the recoveries aren’t even reported because they only include people who have sought treatment. This does not include people who experienced symptoms and simply recovered at home.
There’s resource stress: People areflocking to stores to stock up on months’ worth of supplies, despite allattempts by organizations and agencies to calm the situation and reiterate the importance of rationing. It’s also important to remember that there’s not a grocery “shortage” either, it’s more of a problem ofmeeting the current demand quickly enough.
There’s social media stress: Social media can be a very useful tool to help connect with people and stay informed. But if you’re consuming information about the pandemic nonstop, the stress can be too much to handle. Now is a great time to put away the electronic devices and pick up some abandoned projects that you might not have had time for before (even if they’re work-related).
There’s also the stress onhospitals and medical professionals who have insufficient rooms, beds, ventilators, masks and gloves. Medical professionals also have to worry about getting sick or carrying the virus to their families at home. Butmany companies are shifting their production focus to creating hospital equipment and PPE to help out.
For people who have a pre-existing mental illness or any of the main anxiety disorders (panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and social/other phobias),times like these can be particularly trying.
According to the CDC, people who might be more susceptible to anxiety and stress right now include:
The CDC has some specific information that can help you reduce stress and help those around you keep calm, particularly if you live with someone who is in a high-risk category (read more here). Anxiety in general is something that most people experience in their lives. But for many people, isolation and the global crisis can bring upon unprecedented levels of anxiety and distress.
Since it’s a time of such heightened anxiety for almost everyone, it’s important to understand 1) What you can do to determine when you should genuinely worry about contacting a doctor (or if you’re just experiencing anxiety) and 2) What you can do to reduce stress and anxiety naturally every day from the comfort of your home.
Some of thesymptoms of a panic attack can mimic symptoms of COVID-19. When people are anxious, they breathe more rapidly. This rapid breathing (hyperventilation) can make you feel like you’re suffocating and can make your muscles tense. Panic attacks can give you chills, chest pain, fatigue, sweats and shortness of breath. With many healthcare facilities already overwhelmed, it is important to understand how to tell the difference between a panic attack and real symptoms of COVID-19 (or any other life-threatening symptoms).
Shortness of breath is possibly the most concerning similarity between COVID-19 and anxiety, but fever is a symptom that’s exclusive to illness. Additionally, anxiety doesn’t make your nose runny or create mucus. If you have access to a thermometer, use it as this is one of the most effective ways to monitor an illness when you start to feel unwell.
Those who have experience with anxiety and panic attacks: Don’t forget to do what’s worked for you before, and help out those who are experiencing anxiety for the first time (no matter how long you’ve suffered with anxiety, you probably remember how frightening severe anxiety is at first).
If you’re genuinely feeling ill: Fever, shortness of breath, coughing and presenting other symptoms of COVID-19 or another illness, please contact your doctor or other medical professional right away. The CDC also has a very useful “self-check” test for COVID-19 that can give you much more definitive guidance:
Some people use alcohol to calm the nerves and alleviate anxiety. During a time of quarantines and stay-at-home orders, alcohol consumption is an attractive escape from reality. When you drink, alcohol targets the GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors in the brain and inhibits the nervous system, a similar mechanism to Xanax and other benzodiazepines.
But alcohol can actually exacerbate anxiety in certain situations. As consumers stockpile andbooze sales are booming, it’s important to keep in mind the importance of moderation. Even outside of anxiety, excessive alcohol can damage the brain, liver, kidneys and heart.
The morning-after anxiety that people experience (affectionately referred to as “hangxiety”) iscaused by the body’s attempt to balance your chemicals. The more you drink, the more GABA is released and the more glutamate (the neurotransmitter responsible for excitation) is blocked. To combat this change, your brain tries to restore balance by bringing GABA levels down and glutamate levels back up. As a result, when you’re done drinking, your brain experiences a spike in glutamate and a dip in GABA, which causes anxiety and nervousness.
In the long-term, alcohol’s impact on anxiety is less clear, primarily because there’s such astrong connection between anxiety, depression and alcohol abuse to begin with: Do anxiety and depression lead to alcohol abuse, or does alcohol abuse lead to anxiety and depression? Either way, the best bet is to drink moderately and avoid all of the potential side effects of long-term excessive alcohol use. This is especially true right now, because alcohol can also impact on your sleep and immune system.
Daily breathing exercises
Breathing exercises are a cornerstone of calmness. Considering the respiratory-related symptoms of COVID-19, daily breathing exercises are even more important to help reduce the intensity of anxiety or panic attacks and reassure yourself that your lungs are functioning properly.
People often say “take a deep breath” when they’re trying to get people to calm down. While deep breathing is important in meditation and yoga, someone who is in the grips of a panic attack will not benefit from a deep breath. In fact, trying to breathe deeplycan exacerbate anxiety attacks. Controlling a panic attack is difficult, but when they do occur, the focus should be onregulating your breathing (counting equal breaths in and out) rather than worrying about taking deep breaths.
If you do breathing exercises every day, you can help reduce your overall anxiety and possibly prevent severe anxiety events altogether.
Exercise and Anxiety
Exercise options are more limited at the moment, but there are still plenty of things you can do to take advantage of the stress and anxiety-reducing benefits of physical activity. In a previous article, weprovided a list of gyms that are offering free online classes during the stay-at-home period, so check that out if you’re interested in maintaining your routine while keeping safe social distance.
Exercise helps you in many ways, and it’s one of the most effective natural treatments for anxiety available. Even one exercise session can reduce anxiety, according toHarvard Medical School. Exercise works because:
Eat the right food, drink the right beverages
We’ve already discussed the impact alcohol can have on anxiety, but almost everything you ingest can have an impact on your mood. Caffeine in moderate amounts has little to no impact on anxiety, but consuming large amounts of caffeine in any form (four cups or more) can increase anxiety significantly. People with a caffeine sensitivity are also more at risk for exacerbated anxiety with even small doses of caffeine.
Food is a trickier subject since we have to eat to be healthy (and survive). For many people, food is a comfort. Right now, as restaurants are relying on takeout and delivery orders to stay afloat economically, it’s important to support your favorite restaurants as often as possible. With trips to the grocery store posing potential exposure hazards, and with no sit-down restaurant options available, it might seem like a challenging time for healthy eating.
For the time being, the best approach is to keep it simple. Don’t stress too much about the grocery store or finding the perfect keto/paleo foods for every meal. Some easy things you can do right now are:
Following these three basic guidelines will give your body the best shot at regulating its blood sugar, which is the most important factor regarding anxiety and food. Spikes and crashes in your glucose levels can mimic the symptoms of a panic attack, even if the blood sugar swings aren’t significant. A low-sugar diet with few processed foodswill help you feel calmer and be healthier overall. Since virtually every restaurant in the country is offering some form of curbside pickup or delivery option, you should still have plenty of healthy options available.
If you have anxiety about ordering takeout because of potential exposure to COVID-19, there’s little to worry about.Experts agree that you’re very unlikely to contract coronavirus from takeout containers. Even so, it’s still a good idea to wash your hands before and after handling food containers to be on the safe side (although you should generally wash your hands before and after eating anyway for best hygiene).
For people who are anxious about taking pharmaceutical medications like Xanax or Ativan, herbal remedies are an important option to consider.Research suggests that herbal medicines like passionflower and kava have measurable anxiolytic properties, and these herbs have been used for centuries as medicine.
There is also strong evidence in support of dietary supplements like ashwagandha and magnesium to help improve overall mood andalleviate anxiety, stress and depression. Agrowing body of research supports the hypothesis that a magnesium deficiency can cause depression or anxiety, and for several years, ashwagandha has beenfrequently researched as an anti-anxiety treatment. Since natural remedies often have few side effects, try a few different ones (even starting as simply as a cup of chamomile tea) and see what works best with your body.
Another extremely important thing you can do during this time is look for positive news to come out of all of this. It’s easy to get caught up in fear and statistics and become overwhelmed by all of the information that’s available. So in the spirit of this article, with the intention of helping reduce anxiety and stress, here are a few positive things to focus on as we move through the next few weeks.
Major manufacturers have shifted their focus to making masks and other equipment for hospitals and patients to help meet the growing demand.L.L. Bean, New Balance Brooks Brothers andDenver Mattress Company are a handful of the companies that have started using the materials that would normally go to their consumer products to focus on making hundreds of thousands of masks, gowns and gloves.
General Motors and Ford Motor Company are currently teaming up with 3M, Ventec Life Systems and General Electric to create respirators, ventilators and face shields as part of an initiative fostered byStopTheSpread.org - an organization that helps unite the business community to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Bauer, makers of hockey equipment,have shifted their efforts to making face shields for healthcare workers, and SilTec (maker of silicone prosthetics) and Stickfx (Halloween costume manufacturers)are joining up to create reusable protective masks.
Severaldistilleries and breweries across the country are also doing their part to create hand sanitizer for first responders, hospital workers, and the general public. Using their existing equipment, alcohol producers are able to distill and bottle sanitizer easily while they put some of their brewing operations on hold.
Regardless of whether or not this attitude of “taking care of people first” sticks post-pandemic, it’s always nice to see people coming together and helping each other. There’s also thecommunity spirit factor to consider: people singing from balconies,grand gestures of gratitudefor healthcare workers, lots of charitable contributions and eveninnovative ways to send tips to service industry workers so you can show your support when you have a drink at home.
From an environmental perspective, there’s also some positive news to share:
In China,emissions fell 25% at the beginning of the year and coal use fell by 40%.
The impact of shelter-in-place orders shows thatwe can act quickly and effectively to reduce greenhouse gas-related emissions in the face of a climate crisis.
The hole in the ozone layer, which was shrinking before the coronavirus pandemic,continues to shrink at an accelerated pace.
In Italy, thecanals are clear enough to see fish again, and animals have returned to spaces that were previously overcrowded with humans.
Nobody is celebrating the loss of life, the economic impact or general disarray that’s happening right now, but by looking at as many positive things as possible, we are helping to ensure that loss doesn’t come without some kind of silver lining. By now you’ve likely seen plenty of social media posts and have read articles that talk about the importance of reflecting on the pre-pandemic world. While these well-intentioned pieces of content can sometimes cross the line from inspirational prose to corny cliche, there’s definite value in reevaluating the things that we tend to take for granted—particularly health.
How you deal with stress and anxiety right now could be a major determining factor in how quickly you get your life back to wherever you want it to be—whether that’s to try and get back to normal, or if that means starting over again with new insight and motivation. But bombarding your senses with negative news and terrifying statistics can be overwhelming, so try and take in as much good news as possible.
If you practice some easy daily exercises, stick with a routine, try your best to eat healthy, avoid too much alcohol and sugar and embrace the positives of the situation, you can help ease your anxious feelings and reduce the chance that you’ll experience severe anxiety or panic attacks.
If you are struggling with severe anxiety or know someone who is, please reach out to a mental health professional right away. In the meantime, the CDC has some recommendations on how to deal with personal stress, and how to help those around you who are struggling.
Seth Garland - Content Writer, Physician's Choice