With its persistent grip, COVID-19 has exacted an unimaginable toll on all of us. It’s taken lives and livelihoods, canceled celebrations, isolated us from family, friends, co-workers. Coupled with a news cycle dominated by ceaseless reports of global war, mass shootings and a nation seemingly hopelessly divided, we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re all dealing with increasing amounts of crippling anxiety.
While feeling anxious might be uncomfortable, it’s not always detrimental. “Anxiety can help us plan, strategize and avoid problems,” says psychiatrist Margaret Distler, director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. But the World Health Organization reported earlier this year that anxiety and depression spiked by 25% in the pandemic’s first year, identifying loneliness, fear of infection, financial stressors and grief over what we’d lost among the chief culprits. Now, as we stumble toward (hopefully) a post-COVID world, our collective psyche remains frazzled. All of those awful headlines aren’t abating anytime soon.
Distler has been on the front lines of this anxiety epidemic, witnessing the spike in real time. “We’ve seen a marked increase in complaints of anxiety since the onset of the pandemic,” she says. “Once people began to realize we were in it for the long haul, I saw many more patients with previously normal levels of anxiety meeting the criteria for an anxiety disorder.” She expects these effects to outlast the pandemic. “We feel a little less safe in the world.”
Phobias, panic attacks, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress — they’re all on the rise.
Anxiety, Distler says, is very different from fear. “When you see a bear in the wild, that’s fear — versus worrying that you might encounter a bear, which is anxiety,” she says. In other words, we aren’t just dealing with today’s stressors; we’re getting ourselves worked up thinking about all of the terrible things that may still be in the offing. For nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults, it goes beyond even that. Diagnoses for anxiety disorders — most commonly phobias, panic attacks, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders and post-traumatic stress — are all on the rise.
An anxiety disorder differs from a typical experience of anxiety in a few key ways, notably in that it tends to persist, is often out of proportion with the threat and causes distress or impairment that significantly affects both quality of life and functioning. The good news is that anxiety disorders are highly treatable — though only 37% of people with anxiety disorders receive care, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, with underserved communities that have limited access to mental health resources particularly at risk.
No matter what your anxiety level, Distler says there are a few commonsense, actionable steps you can take to manage it.
Remember You Have Choices
Eliminate or cut back on your involvement with the people or activities that conjure anxiety, and turn up the volume on the stuff that makes you feel more relaxed. (One common stressor these days: overdosing on social media.) Human connection, like the simple act of being in touch with a friend or loved one, can make the day’s stresses seem less important. Prioritize such exchanges.
Of course, it’s not always best to avoid what makes us anxious. If certain events trigger your anxiety out of proportion to the threat, the more you tackle these uncomfortable situations, starting with baby steps, the less stress they’re likely to cause in the long run. “Avoidance,” Distler says, “can keep us from doing things that would otherwise enhance our lives.”
Deep Breaths, People
“Take a breath” is an axiom as old as time, because it works. The technique known as “box breathing,” or paced breathing, can trick the mind into believing the body is relaxed, so it will follow suit. “Dysregulated breathing — short, frequent breaths — is an expression of anxiety,” Distler explains. “Because our minds and bodies are closely related, changing that pattern can be relaxing.” Here’s how it works: Inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for four more seconds, exhale for four, hold your breath for four. Repeat.
Exert Some Control
When the constant barrage of terrible news in the world makes you uptight, taking actions to try to make things better — however small — can address the despair, Distler says. Calling your congressperson, attending a rally, even making a small donation can alleviate the creeping sense of hopelessness.
Keep It Routine
If your anxiety stems from feeling overwhelmed, establishing daily routines can help. A lot. Sleep is critical here. “Going to bed and waking up at about the same time each day gives the body a consistent circadian rhythm, which is important for mood,” Distler says.
Isolation is a breeding ground for anxiety. Getting out and taking part in life has the added benefit of acting as a welcomed distraction, forcing the mind to stay in the moment rather than ruminating on what may or may not lie ahead. And if getting out involves exercise, all the better. “We know from randomized clinical trials that people who exercise regularly have lower anxiety,” Distler says.
Flip the Script
If you’re still chronically fretting, put your negative thinking on trial. “Often when we feel anxious, our thoughts aren’t very objective,” Distler says. “If you’re telling yourself, ‘No one likes me,’ ask yourself if that’s really a fact and think about someone who does.” Indeed, people who are perennially anxious can be their own harshest critics. “They often don’t treat themselves kindly, the way they might treat someone who, for instance, lost a job during the pandemic,” Distler says. “I advise people like that to think of someone they have a lot of compassion for, like their child, and address themselves the same way.”
If you’re still feeling persistently anxious and it’s affecting your daily life, you may require something more. Remember that it’s okay to ask for help. “We approach anxiety disorders differently from how we advise people with normal anxiety,” Distler says. “So if someone says that no matter what they do, this is still interfering with their life — that’s a cue they should seek professional guidance.”
Yes, these are brutal times we are living through. But bad times don’t last forever, and these won’t, either. In the words of the late poet Maya Angelou, “You may not control all the events that happen to you. But you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Fall 2022 issue.