Guest column: Is anxiety decreasing during this crisis?

Dr. Anson Service, of Adventure Psychological Services, offers valuable thoughts on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders

As a therapist and general observer of people, I have discovered a pattern with some of the people I know who usually suffer with extreme anxiety. Many of them seem to be doing relatively well during this crisis. This caught me by surprise because, by all accounts, isn’t this what so many are so worried about? 

Dr. Anson Service
Dr. Anson Service

Well, maybe in the past they have been worried about zombie attacks or killer bee swarms, but whatever they are worried about, it is something catastrophic that could steal the lives of thousands, or millions. Of course, I am being facetious, but this life of anxiety, uncertainty, and doom is a set of thoughts and emotions that accompany many people to work and school and has a place at the dinner table on a daily basis for many families. 

For those who typically suffer with anxiety, those who are handling the crisis well, I am hearing them say, “I got this.” One person even told me that this reality we are in now with the virus is nothing compared to the scenarios he has played through thousands of times in his head that keep him awake at night. This was essentially him saying, “hold my beer, I can top this.”   

Various age groups

For the rest of those who are not typically anxious daily, I have found that they are concerned about different things, depending on the age of the individual: 

• Children do not really understand what is going on with all of this virus talk and staying at home business. They simply react to what the adults in their lives are doing and how they are emotionally reacting. While the children may not understand the gravity of the situation, they do understand when mom or dad are freaking out more than usual, and this is scary to a child. 

• Older students have recently dealt with changes in their lives that they both welcome (no school until further notice) and despise (cannot hang out with friends). College students have major projects hanging in the balance, unsure how they will be evaluated. Their desire for social connection can continue through online gaming and through social media, but there are limitations there, and if there was a balance of online and in person socializing, there is very little now. Their anxiety grows, and greater isolation often spurs depression. 

• Young working adults who are already struggling to make ends meet, with new jobs, freshly out of school or in a new career, have found themselves thrown out of their livelihood to fend for themselves, or at least that is the sentiment some have shared with me. If they have babies, they are terrified that their child may become sick, or die. If they have older children, they are terrified that they will not be able to provide for them. 

• Older adults have found themselves sinking into both an emotional and financial depression as they watch their nest egg circle the drain. Concerned about their ability to make a living once they retire, if they reach retirement age, they have a host of other financial and physical needs that younger people may not have. Additionally, they have young grandchildren and struggling adult children. The stress can take a toll on their body and mind. 

• The elderly who rely on each other and the kindness of younger people to keep them company and help them out have found themselves alone … very alone. They must be vigilant to take the quarantine seriously when others will not, because for them it is a matter of life or death. This places them at even greater risk of depression and anxiety as they self-isolate. They have facebook, email, and other forms of online entertainment and connection, however, some struggle with electronic literacy or may not have the electronics that will support these apps.  

Suggestions for better mental health

Below are a few suggestions for the various age groups to help ease the pain, mental dis-ease, and boredom of this quarantine period:

• Help your child create hand-written letters to elderly friends, loved ones, and neighbors. This can help the child feel like they are making a difference with something they have very little control over, and they will be happier knowing they brightened the day of someone special. 

• When speaking with children or teens DO NOT freak out! They feel your emotions and children will internalize those emotions without any ability to comprehend what the fear and freak out is really about. One adult may be freaking out about the risk to life, while another may be freaking out about the stimulus package debacle. This can be very confusing to children. 

• When speaking with children and youth, keep information given to them limited to just the facts, and show them that you are in control of your emotions. If your children see you in control, they will be more likely to stay in control. 

• A key to not traumatizing your children is talking with “age appropriateness.” In brief, simple language appropriate to their age, reassure them that they are fine, and you will all be fine if that is the case, but do not lie either. Ask if they have questions and be sure to answer them honestly, but optimistically. If you have a teen in the home allow yourself to be approachable. This means that you should take extra care to not overreact to their mistakes and bad decisions as they go stir-crazy in the home. This should be a time for them to test you to see if they can trust you with their information and antics. 

• It is tempting to blame the various politicians and parties but avoid talking overly negatively about those who are supposed to be helping us. If your children see you are upset with the people talking on the television, they will also be upset with them, and then they will have one more thing that they have strong emotions about without an understanding why and no control over the outcome. This can add to anxiety and depression in children. Limit how much television that portrays the pandemic is permitted to be on. Some children do not understand that the news stations are repetitive and will think they are essentially under attack. 

• Encourage teens to video chat or talk on the phone with an elderly person, for the same reasons as mentioned earlier. It will really break up a monotonous day for our respected elders. 

• Keep a routine, but allow this new routine to help you rejuvenate yourself by adding in time for new things that you know will help you, but haven’t tried yet, such as yoga, smoothie making, planning, cooking better foods, etc. 

• Don’t forget laughter. There are numerous stand up comedians on YouTube and television hosts that will make you forget that there is even a pandemic going on. This is important to spark the production of more neurochemicals that help you feel less stressed, less anxious, less depressed, and give you an overall sense of wellbeing. 

• Try your hand at that great novel you’ve been planning for 20 years. Okay, maybe you’re not into writing, but this is your chance to discover, rediscover, or create part of your life that really makes life worth living. 

• It’s okay to ask for health. My clinic will stay open and if you are not comfortable going to see a therapist, we still provide mental health counseling and therapy over video connection and telephone. I recently started doing this with some of my clients and I was surprised how much I liked the video option.

• YOU MUST STAY ACTIVE! Keep your heart rate elevated for 30 minutes three times per week to help your neurochemicals produce those feelings needed for a better attitude and better mental wellness. YouTube is a great resource for exercise videos. There are thousands of free apps to help keep you in shape as well. 

• Use this time to declutter, organize, and get on top of those projects you have been putting off because you have not had time. 

• Try eating at the dinner table again. Turn off the electronics and keep them away while you prepare and eat together.  

There are thousands of tips online, but whether you struggle with mental health issues or not, this is a time to take pause and recognize your own thoughts, feelings, and emotions associated with this unique time. It can be that time you have always wanted to have in order to dream, discover, and create. Use it wisely.

Dr. Anson L. Service is a Doctor of Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.) and an independent Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor. For more information, go to ansonservice.com.

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