Over the past few weeks, patients have been reporting an increase in anxiety symptoms. I asked Megan Hughes, our Registered Psychotherpist and Social Worker to help answer some commonly asked questions about COVID-19 from a mental health perspective.
- Is it common to see anxiety triggered by health concerns, such as what we are experiencing now with COVID-19?
While everyone reacts differently to stress, it is very common for health concerns to trigger feelings of anxiety. This is especially true when the concern is on a global level and is repeatedly talked about on television, in the newspaper, and on all forms of social media. Watching or listening to repeated stories about a distressing event triggers our stress response. It is most often feelings of uncertainty that triggers anxiety and starts the spiral of “what-ifs”. When there are gaps in our knowledge, it creates unease and discomfort, so our minds tend to fill in those gaps with the worst-case scenario.
While it is important to take necessary precautions, anxiety can become more harmful than helpful as it can lead to increased levels of stress in the body, which can consequently weaken the immune system. A healthy perspective is so important during these times, as having a positive and proactive mindset can increase our strength and resiliency in stressful situations.
2. Can you explain the difference between Generalized Anxiety and what is considered a ‘normal’ degree of anxiety when faced with a stressful situation?
Fear is a normal, and in fact, helpful emotion. We need fear to sense danger and help protect ourselves against imminent risk of harm. Fear is a response to something that is a direct threat, while anxiety is a response to a future-oriented thought of what could happen.
Some degree of anxiety can help us to recognize that something is important and requires additional attention. It can help us to prepare for an event, for example an exam or a job interview. However, anxiety can become debilitating when the thoughts are excessive, overwhelming, irrational and/or disabling. Excessive anxiety can cause changes in our daily functioning and can disrupt daily life. Anxiety also causes an increase in cortisol, which is known as ‘the stress hormone’. High levels of stress and cortisol in the body can actually affect our ability to fight off infections.
3. Are there any tips or feedback you have for individuals feeling increased anxiety?
While we recognize the importance of taking care of our physical health, our mental health is equally as important in maintaining a healthy immune system. Stress-reduction strategies can be helpful in supporting the body and mind through challenging situations. For example, paced breathing can be effective in helping to slow or minimize the anxiety response. Meditation, mindfulness, and grounding techniques can also help to reduce stress and anxiety. Other recommendations are to practice proper sleep routines, increase self-care, engage in light exercise or stretching, eat healthy, and continue to connect with others for social support. Even though you may be practicing social distancing, you can continue to connect with others through phone, video calls, email, etc. Reading positive messages, taking breaks from media or the news, watching funny videos, listening to music and reading are other activities that can help to combat anxiety and strengthen our bodies against the very thing that we are anxious about. All in all, we need to take care of both our physical and mental health, and be kind to one another!
What Happens When Your Immune System Gets Stressed Out?
The Psychology of Uncertainty: How To Cope With Covid-19 Anxiety
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