If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that Covid-19 has affected every part of our lives. One aspect that often goes overlooked is the incredible toll it has taken on our mental health. Living in the time of a pandemic can be anxiety-provoking. According to the CDC, symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States April through June versus the same period last year. Indeed, during late June, 40% of adults in the United States reported struggling with mental health or substance use issues as a result of the pandemic.
For those with existing anxiety disorders, pandemic stress is exacerbating these mental health challenges. But they are not alone. This stress is affecting us all. Heightened anxiety is the most common complaint I hear from patients. As a family physician, my patients range from adolescents to adults. Not only do I get to know their full medical history, I get to know them as individuals. So, when I see chronic anxiety presenting in patients who are not normally anxious — the “worried well” as I call them — I get concerned for their long-term health.
Soon we will have a Covid-19 vaccine and life will, I hope, resume as it once was, but that will take time. Until then, we need to do our best to follow state and CDC guidelines to help control the spread, while finding unique ways to keep our spirits high and our lives moving forward in a healthy direction. As we head into the colder, darker days of winter, it’s important to make a plan now to shore up our mental and physical health as we look forward to a brighter 2021.
Here are ways to keep anxiety in check to boost your health and happiness this winter:
Use social media the right way: Many studies have shown a link between social media use and depression, especially when you develop an unhealthy emotional connection (fear of missing out, feeling disconnected when not logged in).
However, a recent Harvard study finds that it is how you use social media, not necessarily how often and how long you use it, that matters more. Using social media to connect with “real” friends and reinforce your network of social support can have beneficial mental health outcomes. My friends and I really enjoy playing virtual trivia every other week. Apps like Houseparty (houseparty.com) offer a range of games that can be played with groups virtually. Or, try a Zoom happy hour with family and friends. Since we’ll likely be celebrating our holidays differently this year, use technology to bridge those miles.
Stretch your stress away: Multiple studies have shown that practicing yoga can decrease the body’s secretion of cortisol—a common stress hormone. A large analysis of 17 studies and over 500 practitioners of hatha yoga in 2017 found that yoga was a promising anxiety-reliever, and subjects who had the highest levels of anxiety at the outset saw the greatest amount of stress relief. Hatha yoga — the classic branch of the discipline that is good for beginners — focuses on simple techniques such as breathing and postures called asanas. Online classes are readily available. But any type of simple physical activity, even going on a brisk walk or using resistance bands, helps to refocus your attention while also increasing the body’s production of mood-boosting endorphins.
Train your attention: Mindfulness is a popular buzzword these days — but there is flood of research showing its effectiveness to reduce stress. Hundreds of studies have shown that taking a few minutes every day to train your attention on the present moment and then accepting the feelings and experiences of that moment without judgment to help let it go, can reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Try a phone app like Headspace.com or Calm.com, or search for a guided meditation on YouTube.
Eat food that helps you feel good: Unhealthy eating can exacerbate stress by affecting the part of the brain that controls emotion and mood. Sustained periods of stress can lead to the body releasing more cortisol, a hormone that helps the body deal with a stressful event. Too much cortisol in the blood stream can make you feel hungry, causing you to overeat. In addition, there is a growing body of evidence linking our digestive health with brain health, and that includes our response to stress. Certain foods are natural stress fighters, so make sure your diet includes herbal teas, dark chocolate, whole grains, fish, nuts, avocados, citrus fruits and leafy greens.
Finally, be productive: If you have been saying to yourself, “I always wanted play guitar,” now is a good time to learn. Try something new, like drawing, chess, or becoming a master chef. It is also a great opportunity to tackle those home improvement projects, like painting, cleaning out the garage or trimming trees. A sense of accomplishment can keep anxiety at bay and put your mind and body at ease.
Christopher J. Robles, M.D., of White Plains Hospital Physician Associates specializes in family medicine and primary care. To make an appointment with him, call 914-849-7075.
– Christopher J. Robles, M.D.