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Coping with anxiety in these tumultuous times

Many of us held onto the promise of the new year as a potential road to relief. It might have been hard to believe things could get any worse, yet after the violent assault on democracy that unfolded Wednesday and the recent pandemic resurgence in the state, it’s likely that our anxiety and stress has only intensified.

From the start of the pandemic, mental health experts have noted that social isolation, lack of accessible health care, employment uncertainty, prolonged grief and other factors exacerbated by our reality would be detrimental to our well-being, especially for those who may already live with a disability or be prone to mental illnesses.

Survey data from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in December suggests the incidence of depressive or anxious symptoms in particular has mirrored the pattern of the coronavirus curve in the country. Rates of depression and anxiety in June were three to four times higher than at the corresponding point in 2019. But even when the country had its lowest numbers around May, approximately 34% of Americans still reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. That’s roughly three times higher than the 11% reported in 2019, according to a Vox analysis.

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The culmination of a prolonged pandemic even as vaccines start to roll out — with what the nation witnessed at the Capitol this week is concerning for our mental health, and it is normal, even expected, that many individuals will experience heightened symptoms of anxiety, according to experts.

“Uncertainty about literally every aspect of an individual’s life and also uncertainty about the pandemic and when it will be under control appears to be the greatest cause of increased anxiety,” Dr. Cedric Skillon, a psychiatrist with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Minneapolis, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Regarding the current political situation, Skillon says it is normal to feel especially stressed or anxious.

Under any threat, according to orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Hanscom, who regularly writes about the relationship between anxiety and chronic pain, our bodies secrete hormones that work to increase our chances of survival.

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“This is modulated through the autonomic nervous system, which results in an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, increased fuel supply, dilation of certain blood vessels to your muscles, and constriction of blood flow to your brain, bowel, and bladder,” he says. “Every aspect of it is intended to maximize your chances of survival.”

Anxiety itself has been shown to be an inflammatory disorder caused by exposure to a situation that is perceived as threatening, says Hanscom. And the pandemic has exacerbated related factors: There’s the actual and real threat of death with the pandemic; the lack of social connection, which causes dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system; and, of course, that fact that “we could not be in more uncertain times,” he says.

Such prolonged exposure to sustained mental, personal and societal threats can in turn cause prolonged exposure to inflammation, which physically destroys tissues and is at the core of chronic disease and increases risk of early mortality.

Our bodies process mental and physical threats in similar ways, with sensors and feedback loops, says Hanscom. You may not feel mental pain or be able to recognize it off the bat, “but it will manifest in over 30 different symptoms.” For Hanscom himself, these symptoms have involved migraine headaches, neck and back pain, burning feet, depression and skin rashes.

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By teaching people how to process stress, anxiety and anger more efficiently and increase the resiliency of their coping skills, body chemistry can normalize, sense of well-being can improve and pain can resolve, he says.

Hanscom emphasizes three aspects to coping with anxiety. The first, which he refers to as “output,” focuses on finding tools to calm your survival responses down. These tools might include mindfulness, breathing exercises, meditation, humming or even listening to certain pitches of music.

Addressing the nervous system directly is another aspect. The idea, he says, is to train your nervous system to be less reactive to stress. That may entail psychologically processing previous trauma, ensuring restful sleep patterns and getting healthy exercise.

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Lastly, there’s the “input.” This is where you want to ask yourself: What are you choosing to load into your brain? What are you holding onto?

The bottom line, adds Skillon, is that now, during the pandemic and in these tumultuous political times, is the time to double-down on self-care.

Among his self-care recommendations: Good exercise, diet and sleep; daily quiet time for meditation, reflection, reading, prayer if applicable; support meetings, even if virtual, confidantes at and away from work; strong family connections for grounding; grace for oneself and our own limits; books, podcasts, recovery apps. And, if you’re struggling with these things, professional services—therapy, treatment, a recovery coach.

“You’re not alone, and getting some information—talking to someone—may be just what you need to move beyond the feelings of fear, frustration and pain,” he says.

Fiza Pirani is an Atlanta-based writer and editor, and founder of the immigrant-centered mental health newsletter, Foreign Bodies.

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