Anxiety in Our Times


It is not unusual for people to experience anxiety or worry at times, maybe even frequently. Humans are predisposed to pay more attention to negative information, as a sort of survival strategy. Worry and anxiety can be thought of as protective devices that a healthy person possesses to help navigate dangerous situations. 

Anxiety and worry are like the flashing red lights on the dashboard of your car. When you see that red light, you know you must pay attention, assess the situation, then plan for what must be done to make the light stop blinking. The blinking red lights can save your life.

It is helpful to know there is a difference between worry and anxiety. Worry usually involves a specific thing or event. Worry is experienced “in our heads” and is focused on our thoughts. Worry often results in thinking about solutions. Worry creates a mild sense of emotional distress, and can be controlled.

On the other hand, anxiety is experienced viscerally and diffusely in our bodies. Anxiety includes mental imagery that provokes physical responses, and seldom results in any productive resolution to a perceived problem. Many people experience lingering anxiety that can interfere with personal and professional functioning. An individual’s anxiety can rise to the point of being considered a mental disorder that requires treatment. 

For people who currently suffer from anxiety disorders, the present state of social distancing and other restrictive measures can be confusing. These people have been struggling daily to decipher between irrational fears and responses, and what others see as “normal.” Now, their fears and responses have become the new, if temporary, normal for everyone. It’s unsettling, and some people have concerns about regressing. They fear losing the progress they have made in distinguishing between real threats and “false alarms.”

Many people admit to experiencing symptoms of anxiety during this time of coronavirus distancing and precautions, some for the first time in their lives. Symptoms of anxiety can include muscle tension, physical weakness, poor memory, constant worry, sweaty hands, inability to relax, shortness of breath, palpitations, upset stomach and poor concentration. 

The battle against COVID-19 will continue in the weeks and months ahead. We are in it for the long haul, and must keep a perspective that looks not only to surviving the moment, but also for the future. 

Well-known researcher and speaker Brené Brown has offered this helpful statement:
“Adrenaline has a short shelf life. It cannot fuel us through a crisis that lasts for six weeks. And adrenaline is hard on our bodies. So, I think we’re coming to the end of an adrenaline-fueled crisis and we’re going to have to find a way to settle into this rhythm. The only way I can think about it is we have to grieve the loss of normal. At the exact same time, we’re trying to find our footing in the new normal.”

In addition to creating a new perspective for moving forward with our lives, mental health professionals tend to agree on several steps that can be taken to protect our mental and emotional health. The first of these is the need to filter and limit the sources and amount of COVID-19 news each day. Data from past disasters have shown that those who watch coverage several hours a day are at an increased risk for PTSD and new physical health disorders than those who limit viewing.

Other steps include staying connected with friends and family. Isolation and loneliness exacerbate anxiety and depression, and also affect physical health. Call your neighbors, especially those who live alone, and offer a bit of conversation. Using social media and other technologies make it possible to see and connect with much-needed circles of support.

Other stress management recommendations include keeping household routines for sleep, mealtimes and exercise. Routines can help with a sense of normalcy. Self-care is especially important, but avoid self-medicating with alcohol or other substances. Spending some time outdoors can relieve stress, as well as meditation or deep breathing techniques.

Last, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to help others. This can require a little creativity in the current circumstances. Donations to a food bank or other community organizations are always welcome. Canadians have formed local groups across Canada called “Caremongers,” the opposite of fear mongers, to kindly assist each other with practical needs. 

Anxiety and worry will be ongoing as we move through the cycles of this pandemic. Reaching out to friends, family and professionals can help manage symptoms and fears. 

Resources such as the Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990), Crisis Text Line (text “HOME” to 741741), or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) are available day or night.