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Fearful Times: Facing the Everyday Anxieties of 2020

Call it a side effect of chaotic times, a rational worry about becoming seriously ill can quickly turn into a downward and dark thought spiral, or ruminating about current events can mushroom into apocalyptic visions of the future.

Anxiety has been called “fear that has no name.” It seems a particularly fitting way to describe the uncertainties we face today – from the coronavirus to political and social unrest.

In the most basic sense, anxiety is a universal human experience. Fear is crucial for survival because it has a purpose – to identify danger. But it’s also an unpleasant sensation and human nature is to not want to feel it.

Recognize Anxiety by its Name

So what can you do when anxiety takes hold? First, recognize it by name. Remind yourself that anxiety has a physiological basis and physical symptoms.

Physiologically, the fight-or-flight response triggers a flood of chemicals and hormones into your system, which can increase your pulse and breathing. Physically, your stomach might feel like it’s turning to jelly. Your heart can jump into your throat. You may feel tense, jittery, fidgety, and your mind is often racing. It’s hard to concentrate; it’s hard to sleep.

As a natural response, it can be quite uncomfortable. The person experiencing anxiety can also compound it with worry as they try to find explanations for these unidentified feelings. Once you’re able to recognize that discomfort as anxiety, you can address it.

The Emotional Brain and Thinking Brain

To take on anxiety, use both your emotional brain and thinking brain. They’re meant to work hand-in-hand, but sometimes they don’t. For example when you’re watching a scary movie, your emotional brain detects fear. But the thinking brain knows it’s just a movie – so you have control – and thus no lasting anxiety.

In therapy, we look at anxiety directly to identify your emotional reaction and your thinking reaction. The thinking reaction is what you can control.  Start by asking:

  1. What does this particular event mean to me?
  2. How can I cope with this?

For example, an anxiety-producing thought might be, “My loved one is going to get COVID-19 and die.” To counter that emotional fear, use your thinking brain to look for evidence. Has your loved one been exposed? Have they been taking precautions? Are you overestimating the probability? Your thinking brain can remind you that a minority of people who get COVID-19 become seriously ill, and that there are more effective treatments on the way.

Give yourself some control by identifying things you can do to minimize the risk and actions you can take. The goal is not to make anxiety go away. It’s so you can experience anxiety and say, “I can deal with it.”

When to Seek Help

Anxiety is a common emotion and something we all feel from time to time, whether it’s before a big presentation, an overseas flight or unexpected world events. It can be hard to know when to seek help.

Two Signs Anxiety is More Than the Everyday Variety

1.) Too much, too long. This is very subjective, but it’s about duration and intensity of anxiety. If you’re unable to work or do things you need to do, that’s a sign you would benefit from professional help.

2.) Out of the clear blue sky. Suddenly your heart is pounding, you feel like you’re dying. This is a panic attack. It’s like an alarm system that is too sensitive and goes off too often and this normally protective mechanism goes haywire.

People with other types of anxiety, such as social anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, also benefit from a professional perspective. For everyday stress, don’t be afraid to try different coping tools – saying “no” more often, asking someone to be your “vent-partner,” or simply remembering to stand up and stretch. Find what works for you.

If you would like to connect with a CHI Health mental health provider, visit chihealth.com/behavioral. We offer in-person and virtual therapy sessions with our team of licensed mental health therapists.

Hudson H.T. Hsieh, MD
Hudson H.T. Hsieh, MD

Hudson H.T. Hsieh, MD is a Psychiatrist with CHI Health.

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