Interestingly, while more Americans are likely to identify their mental health struggles during COVID-19 as stress, most experts say that anxiety is likely the more dominant manifestation. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but in fact have different causes. Stress is typically short-term, and is in response to a recognized threat, such as too much work that needs to be done immediately or an upcoming test. Anxiety can linger, and can be an internal response to something that isn’t actually threatening, or can even occur without a trigger. Think of anxiety as a state of persistent apprehension or fear – something that can continue even after the situation has passed. In both cases, you may experience a faster heartbeat or breathing, diarrhea or constipation. With stress, moodiness, irritability, feeling overwhelmed and even loneliness are all common symptoms. Anxiety is often accompanied by nervousness, feeling tense or restless, and an ongoing feeling of unease or dread.
The symptoms of both conditions are certainly similar, which is why the terms are often confused. But in today’s world, anxiety can present itself in unusual ways – and that may make recognizing it and treating it properly even more difficult. The following signs may all indicate anxiety, yet they are often ignored or passed off as nothing to worry about, especially during our current situation:
- Sleep disturbances. Trouble sleeping is so common that it’s almost the norm, but it shouldn’t be. The health risks of not getting enough good quality sleep now well known, but that doesn’t help much when anxiety is keeping you awake. The standard advice of maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and evening are still important. But two other factors may be contributing to your sleep issues right now: using your bed for work and using screens to catch up on news right before bed. Set aside a designated area in your home for work – well away from the bedroom if possible. And avoid all screens (and all screen activity, news-related or not) for at least an hour before bed.
- Distracting yourself with new chores or hobbies. There’s nothing wrong with doing a little quarantine cleaning or baking. But when you start to devout too much time to online classes, picking up new or renewing old hobbies, or spending every waking minute redecorating or cleaning every crevice of your home, you might be using activities to distract yourself. Many people with anxiety want to fill every minute, which often means time for rest, meditation and sleep are cut short. Make sure you’re balancing your days and not cramming them full of non-stop activities that will also make anxiety worse in the long run.
- Losing interest in once pleasurable activities. While many people go overboard on activities, others with anxiety go in the opposite direction and avoid anything but the bare minimum of activities they need to do to keep themselves and their families functioning. This is particularly a concern for those who suddenly find themselves without any daily structure, or a work that they once found meaningful. If you’re spending far too much time bingeing the latest Netflix series or scrolling for hours through your social media feeds, it’s time to create some new routines in your life. Set aside designated time for screens or entertainment every day. Then schedule in time for exercise, self-care, and connecting with family and friends. Set rules for household chores, and make them non-negotiable, even if you’re the one doing them. Make sure your wind-down period and bedtime are scheduled as well. After just a few days of a new routine, you’ll likely find you have some energy returning, which is a good step in managing anxiety.
- Feeling lonely, yet isolating more. Many people, particularly those who live alone are reporting feeling more lonely than usual. That’s to be expected as our physical interaction with others has diminished significantly. But instead of reaching out and staying connected virtually, some people find themselves withdrawing even more. It’s a catch-22 situation: the more isolated you feel, the more you may tend to isolate. Without even realizing it, you can go a day or two (or even more) with no meaningful interaction with those people who are most important in your life. Make an effort to connect with somebody every day, even if it’s just a phone call or a zoom catch-up. Texting doesn’t count – you really need to have an old-fashioned conversation. Starting off slowly will help you slowly ease back into a more social state-of-mind, which can definitely help keep anxiety a little more manageable.
- Being more forgetful. When your schedule is disrupted and you’re off your routine, it’s easy to become a little more forgetful. But if you’re forgetting conversations or feeling absent-minded, it’s likely due to increased anxiety. Anxiety makes it difficult to concentrate, so you might find yourself reading the same page over and over in a book, or watching a television program all the way through only to realize you have no idea what it was about. Practice a little mindfulness – and try to be present in every situation. If you are having a conversation with somebody, try to give them your full attention. If you’re watching television or playing a game with others, put down your phone and keep your focus on one single task at a time. Doing so will also help you keep anxious thoughts and obsessions from overtaking your entire thought process.
- Experiencing more fatigue, headaches, and other aches and pains. Anxiety tends to manifest as physical symptoms in many people. If you suddenly find that you have more headaches or digestive issues than before, it might be due to anxiety. Avoid alcohol, make sure you are eating properly, get at least a little exercise daily, practice deep breathing, yoga, or meditation, and make sleep a priority. If these steps don’t help, and unusual fatigue or persistent pain continues, call your doctor. There may be an underlying condition that needs treatment, or they may recommend therapy to help you develop the tools for managing your anxiety.
No matter what your symptoms, if you feel that anxiety, stress, or depression are making it difficult (or impossible) to manage during COVID-19 or are interfering with your plans to return to your daily activities and responsibilities, it’s important to get help. Most therapists now offer telehealth appointments, so it’s likely easier and more convenient than ever to get the treatment you need. If you don’t have a therapist, talk to your doctor for a referral or find one here.
This article first appeared in the June 2020 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.