Coping with Anxiety in the Time of Social Distancing

The past few weeks have been emotionally exhausting for many of us. We’re all navigating uncertain times weighed down by the fear of what may come. Coping with anxiety is something hundreds of millions of Americans deal with on a daily basis. And that was long before this global pandemic cast even greater concerns over our collective psyche. 

Dealing with anxiety, fear, loneliness, and countless other emotional burdens brought on by global panic can be draining. Most of us have been mandated to stay home and avoid crowds of any kind, socially distancing ourselves from everyone and everything we hold dear. That means no family dinners, date nights, concerts or movies with friends, group workouts and yoga routines, and coffee shop meetups. These societal restrictions only mean one thing: more anxiety. 

Limiting our social health while expanding upon the triggers that degrade our emotional health, anxiety can be a direct result of social distancing. Worrying about the well-being of our loved ones, where our next paycheck is going to come from, and the global well-being of all humans, is a weight none of us were quite ready to carry. This makes coping with anxiety all the more troublesome and scary. And yet, even with our disrupted routines, many of us still hold onto concerns around maintaining our work efficiencies or fitness goals – trying to find ways to control the situation. 

To say that heightened anxiety may linger for the time being is a gross understatement. Times may be tough for the foreseeable future; but that doesn’t mean we have to suffer. There are ways that mental health experts suggest coping with anxiety. With interpersonal exercises and digital social interaction, you can reduce stress and calm the triggers.

Coping with Anxiety – What to Expect 

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests that 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders – and that was before the COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year. These numbers have likely grown, which is to say that anxiety is very common and impacts the majority.

“I expect an increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms to come when the experience of social distancing and isolation becomes more routine,” Dr. Alexander Sanchez, a psychiatrist working in New York City, told ABC News earlier this week. “We are trying to adjust to a new way of maintaining social connections virtually. There will be some psychic pain while we adjust.”

As mental health professionals expect anxiety among Americans to rise, it’s important to understand that it’s normal to experience this stress. It may manifest in a number of ways. Here are a few:

Productivity Guilt

Fearful you won’t finish your entire book collection, learn a new language, or pick up an instrument while quarantined at home? Feeling that way isn’t just due to the enormous amount of pressure you put on yourself, but also because you feel everyone else is being far more productive than you during this time. 

This is called productivity guilt, and it’s brought on by multiple forms of anxiety. Allowing a suffocating amount of pressure to stifle your psyche during this time is a reaction to social anxiety. You aren’t required to do more nor be more during this time. Your mind is working overtime just to cope with this difficult time. Expecting yourself to be more productive during this time – with all the excess mental weight you’re carrying – isn’t fair trade.

How to Cope: Although it’s not nearly as effective as it would be in person, online therapy can be a great resource when experiencing productivity guilt. Speaking with a mental health professional may feel like a big leap when dealing with what may appear to be a singular issue, but getting your feelings out with someone who can properly assess them is necessary. Talkspace is a great online therapeutic resource for coping with anxiety.

Stress Eating

Emotional eating is a more traditional form of coping with anxiety. We stress eat when we feel anger, sadness, or uncertainty. Millions have struggled with eating disorders long before social distancing amplified its symptoms. 

“People who struggle with eating disorders are often highly prone to stress anyway,” Claire Mysko, advisor to the National Eating Disorder Association, told the Huffington Post. “But the actual behavior and the disorder itself can really intensify those feelings.”

It’s been clinically proven that most eating disorders are linked to anxiety, depression, and oftentimes isolation. So, being forced into a stressful situation like social distancing now acts as a trigger.

How to Cope: Try to place yourself in calming situations. When you feel stress or see signs of anxiety, use breathing techniques, yoga, or meditation to fend off looming triggers. As emotional eating can often be brought on by negative thinking, journal positive feelings to combat negativity. There’s no better time to be kind to yourself, even if you stress eat. Start by holding yourself in high esteem, even in stressful times.

Social Anxiety

Many believe that only extroverts are suffering from the effects of social distancing. Truth be told, everyone needs human interaction to thrive emotionally. “Research has long-supported the idea that strong social bonds strengthen people’s mental health,” said M.D. Alan Teo, author and assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University to Psychology Today.

“This is the first look at the role that the type of communication with loved ones and friends plays in safeguarding people from depression.” Given not all forms of social communication are equal, and in-person interaction largely trumps digital communication, many of us are at hindrance given the current limits on face-to-face social interactions. Plagued by the limitations social distancing creates, we’re all at a disadvantage – introverts and extroverts alike. All social types, really. That’s why it’s more important than ever to lean into all forms of social interaction. 

How to Cope: Although it wouldn’t be considered healthy to go all-in on social media if physical interaction were an option, finding community on Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest is a coping method in the digital era. Of course, it’s critical to practice positive and healthy social media engagement. But now more than ever, human interaction is needed, even if it’s through a digital lens. 

Coping Mechanisms – Things to Remember 

This isn’t permanent. While a definitive time frame hasn’t been determined, this, too, shall pass. There are better times ahead. Things will be normal again. Maybe a new normal, but normal nonetheless. Seek out the positive and try to focus on that. 

Limit your news intake. The news can sometimes be disheartening and a direct detriment to your mental state. Put a cap on how much news you watch and/or read. You can stay informed and still limit the amount of emotional stress you take on. Anxiety often comes from what we ingest. Understanding what sends you spiraling is the first step towards protecting yourself from it. 

Look towards the future. Plan for life after social distancing and COVID-19. Think about life after this global pandemic, and how you plan to make a difference for yourself and others. Planning for the future is inherently positive. Moreover, accepting and standing firm in the fact that there is a future will help you think beyond the now. 

Start with gratitude. Begin each day thankful. Starting each morning with a positive mind frame can work wonders when being constantly faced with anxiety. Don’t allow your day to begin before you start by appreciating the fact that you have another day. Make it a practice to start each day speaking out loud who or what you’re grateful for. It’s a shockingly effective task.

Coping Mechanisms – Best Practices

Get some rest. Time and time again, it’s been proven that getting the proper rest is central to coping with anxiety and staying in your best mental and physical health. The National Sleep Foundation suggests that adults should get anywhere between seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Prioritize rest and watch your mental health stabilize. 

Have a daily routine. Consistency breeds clarity. Having a daily routine is paramount to keeping your mental health sharp during this trying time. Coping with anxiety can be counteracted by purpose and structure. Create a schedule and stick to it. No matter how scaled, place importance on your daily life and your role in its success. 

Value your physical health. With many of your favorite fitness providers offering free and discounted digital services, one of the biggest coping tools is prioritizing your physical health. Whether you practice yoga, you’re a runner, or a weightlifter, push your fitness to the forefront and your mind will thank you.

Go outside (safely). With social distancing in mind, be sure to go outside and get some fresh air. Take a walk, go for a jog, or maybe sit on your porch or in your backyard while working remotely. Staying inside your home 24/7 isn’t healthy. Even if you just step outside your front door a few times a day, everything helps.

Keep in touch. Prioritize time with your family, friends, and coworkers. Facetime them, hop on a Zoom call, or just call them the old-fashioned way. No matter the form of communication, make sure you are taking the time to talk, laugh, and be open with the meaningful people in your life. Now isn’t the time to limit interaction; now is the time to enhance it.

There’s no definitive guidebook to coping with anxiety. Sure, there are suggested do’s and don’ts and even treatments proven by science, but if you’re looking for an all-encompassing document to steer you through this unparalleled time, you won’t find one. 

We’re all worried about the safety of our families, friends, and the financial security that helps care for them. And while many of us are secluded in the practice of social distancing, no one is actually alone. 

We’re all in this together. All grappling with the same worries. We’re strong, resilient, compassionate, and anxiety – no matter how overbearing it may sometimes seem – won’t beat us. 

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