Calm body, mind in a chaotic world
by Julie Estlick
Americans are feeling anxious. At least 40 percent of U.S. adults have experienced high levels of psychological distress at least once since the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Pew Research Center. The pandemic shone a light on just how many people were living with some level of anxiety even before the virus brought a deluge of new worries.
Anxiety—feeling dread, tension, restlessness—can take a serious toll on our mental and physical health, so understanding the symptoms and finding ways to cope is critical to our well-being, experts say.
“There were a lot of unknowns with the pandemic, and unknowns are not good for a human’s stress level,” says Jen Head, behavioral health provider for the Health District’s Connections adult mental health and substance use program. “The isolation also threatened our internal system for wanting to connect—we are wired to be social creatures. Some people realized they experienced anxiety in the past but didn’t know what to call it. Now they feel freer to discuss it.”
That’s due in part to the decrease in stigma around mental health during the pandemic, when it became more socially acceptable to talk about not being OK, and celebrities, pro athletes, and even everyday folks began publicly sharing their struggles.
What exactly is anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotion. It is more than just fear, which is our body’s natural response when there’s a specific threat to our well-being. Fear helps keep us safe and protected in the moment. Anxiety, on the other hand, is “when we start worrying about things that are not really threats, or it’s out of proportion to the actual threat—it’s just how the brain is interpreting what we are experiencing,” Head says.
Unlike fear, anxiety persists with no real resolution. Sufferers describe it as negative thoughts looping continuously about something that happened in the past or distress about the future.
Symptoms of anxiety include your mind racing, or feeling overwhelmed and your mind goes blank, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, feeling restless or “off,” sleep disturbances, and even behavioral changes like avoiding crowds or social situations as a response to feeling anxious.
There are also physical signs of anxiety such as your heart racing, nausea, dry mouth, stomach pain (sometimes with vomiting), muscle tension in the neck or back, hyperventilating, and shortness of breath. Even dizziness and headaches may be caused by anxiety.
Children are also experiencing high rates of anxiety, but symptoms and diagnoses are often different than for adults.
So, what’s making us so anxious? Experts point to factors including poor sleep habits, overuse of social media, worries over the economy, social and political divisions, and fear of getting sick—made worse by a global pandemic that has so far killed more than 6.8 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
An increasing number of people are being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, when anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 19 percent of U.S. adults have been told they suffer from an anxiety disorder, most commonly panic attacks, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Locally, the Health District’s triennial Community Health Survey bears this out. Respondents who reported receiving an anxiety diagnosis from a mental health professional increased by 9 percentage points between 2016 and 2022, while there was a 13-point jump in those who said they were “currently experiencing anxiety, depression, or other mental health problem” in the past six years.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in patients with anxiety,” says the Health District’s Andrea Holt, behavioral health provider at UCHealth’s Family Medicine Center (FMC). “There are people who had underlying anxiety prior to the pandemic and saw it rise to the surface, and the pandemic created new versions of anxiety in those who didn’t have it before.”
Holt manages the Health District’s Integrated Care Program, which pairs mental health and substance use specialists with physicians at FMC and Salud in Fort Collins to help patients in the moment without them having to wait for an appointment or travel to a different location.
Coping and treatment
If you have an anxiety disorder, it is highly treatable with therapy, medications, and skills you can learn to manage symptoms. Holt suggests talking with a trained mental health therapist to figure out the underlying issues around your anxiety, and what’s contributing to it, so you can address it holistically.
No matter what your anxiety level, there are steps you can take to manage it. The “5 Senses Technique” has helped Head’s clients become grounded in the present moment.
Here’s how it works: Stop and say out loud (or in your head) five things you can see around you—and be specific (I see a girl wearing a blue ribbon in her hair). Next, identify four things you feel (the chair underneath me, my soft sweater), then three things you can hear (talking, keyboard clatter), two things you can smell around you, and one thing you can taste or, if that’s a challenge, one thing you know to be true. (I am safe. I am loved. This moment will pass.)
“This technique offers a way to connect to our body and slow down,” she explains. Meditation apps on a phone can also draw attention to our breathing, calming ourselves physically and mentally.
One trap to avoid is using alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs to cope with anxiety, because that can make things worse. “Substances are used by some to try to numb the feelings or the intensity of the anxiety,” Head says. “It may help in the short term, but it can cause longer term issues. Substances won’t help with getting to the root of the issue, and often get in the way of learning and using other tools.”
|Where to find help|
Mental Health and Substance Use Connections
Provides assessments, referrals, and support for adults with behavioral health issues. 970-221-5551
Child, Adolescent, and Young Adult Connections (CAYAC) Team
If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis
SummitStone Health Partners provides a crisis line available 24/7 at 970-494-4200, and a walk-in Behavioral Health Urgent Care treating all ages at 1217 Riverside Ave., Fort Collins, open 7 days a week, 8 a.m. to midnight. Or text “Talk” to 38255 for Colorado Crisis Services.