The world has changed a lot in a short period of time. The number of diagnosed novel coronavirus COVID-19 cases continues to increase. Schools, sports leagues and big events are shutting down. Shoppers are hoarding food, cleaning supplies and toilet paper. And there’s uncertainty about people’s jobs. It’s not surprising that anxiety related to the outbreak is on the rise too.
Anxiety isn’t just a moment of discomfort. It can increase your chances of depression and stroke; do damage to your memory; and even reduce gray matter in parts of your prefrontal cortex (that is not good — trust us).
Finding ways to confront and manage anxiety can help you live a longer, happier life. But getting there requires you understand what is creating the feelings of worry — and why.
Considerable spoke to psychiatrists and therapists who have helped patients control overwhelming stress. They offered suggestions that you can apply to soothe your own stress points.
First, consider the reason we experience anxious feelings.
Anxiety is your body’s natural reaction to perceived danger. In short bursts, the physical responses it triggers help people react quickly to unexpected situations. But prolonged anxiety can wear down the body’s defenses.
Sweating, accelerated breathing, increased heart rate, trembling and nausea: These characteristics of anxiety and more reflect heightened activity in the peripheral nervous system, which drives your sensory organs, blood vessels, and glands.
Over the long run, it can affect your sleep, ability to focus, and general happiness.
And depending on your particular triggers for anxiety, it can interfere with important activities in your life. One person might get extremely nervous when driving on the highway; another might get anxious when presenting at a work meeting.
The root causes of anxiety are still being studied, but it seems environmental, genetic, and behavioral factors all play a part in how much stress you experience and how you deal with it.
Dr. Jephtha Tausig Edwards, a clinical psychologist based in New York, thinks it’s important to consider all the possible causes of stress a person is dealing with in order to better understand and treat their anxiety.
“Older individuals are often facing difficulties with their health and the health of significant others; changes in their lives such as retirement; changes in their personal lives as friends move away, become ill or pass — all of these things can increase an older individual’s anxiety.”
The changes that can occur later in life can be stressful and can lead to new new triggers of anxiety that deserve attention, Dr. Edwards said.
“It’s important to try to determine what is causing an older person’s anxiety: Are they disoriented because they just moved to a new community? Are they missing a significant other they used to live with or see more often than they do now? Are they becoming lonely? Are they dealing with difficult personal health issues and concerns? Have they always been anxious or is this something new?
“The causes and types of their anxiety will help determine the most appropriate interventions, which can range from [therapy] to medication or a combination of both.”
According to Dr. Anna Yam, PhD and clinical psychologist based in San Diego, older people can also experience stress and anxiety caused by the deterioration of cognitive ability.
“With increasing age, older adults experience deterioration in certain cognitive abilities — most notably processing speed. As some tasks take longer and require more effort than they used to, older adults’ anxiety can be triggered by the need to hurry.”
Dr. Yam pointed out some common triggering situations, like rushing to make appointments, or trying to digest a lot of information at once. “One example of the latter is doctors’ visits, where older adults have to process and remember a lot of complex information.”
So what are some strategies, techniques, and approaches for handling anxiety?
1. Get regular exercise
Exercise is always a good thing, and it’s no different when it comes to stress and anxiety. Getting regular exercise helps your mind and your body so do it.
2. Create a routine
To stave off feeling overwhelmed and isolated, try creating and adhering to a solid routine.
Tina Tessina, PhD and psychotherapist based in California, recommends staying busy and staying in touch.
“Create a schedule of things to do and stick to it. Gardening, volunteering, exercising (like walking with others) are all helpful at keeping anxiety at bay. Don’t let yourself sink into doing nothing in isolation. Connection is your best antidote to anxiety.”
3. Try breathing
Christine Scott-Hudson, a trauma-informed psychotherapist based in Santa Barbara, California, believes in the power of breathing.
“Mindfully shifting the way you are breathing is a trauma-informed, bottom-up process that helps to increase feelings of emotional-regulation quickly, safely, and without prescription medication so that you can fall asleep more easily.”
Scott-Hudson recommends “4-7-8 breathing”: Find one spot to focus on, and … breathe in for four counts through your nose, hold your breath at the top for seven counts, and then exhale through your mouth for eight counts.
4. Get expert advice
If your anxiety is chronic or crippling, there are behavioral strategies a licensed professional can help you learn and implement. Cognitive behavioral therapy may help and so might grounding. And of course there are medications that can help with various levels of anxiety, which a professional can help advise on.
No matter what type of anxiety you are dealing with, there are approaches to lessening the effects. Because life is too short to be worried all the time.