by Corinne Gnepf, LCMHCA, NCC
Undoubtedly, these recent months have not gone by without leaving marks on you. It is likely that at one point or another you have felt anxious, distressed, upset or depressed because of how Covid-19 has impacted you. Many more people around the world have experienced a heightened level of anxiety as lives, jobs, family routines, livelihoods, and relationships have been impacted or threatened. Forced isolation, social distancing, the worries about loved ones, missing out on milestone events such as weddings, graduations, anniversaries, and other special events takes a toll. Being stuck in a tight space with people who you love but can seriously get on your nerves, or with people who are unsafe to be around can be highly stressful. Being faced with too many deaths and the risk of working in the health care system is traumatic. All of these and many more can cause severe distress. Many people have gotten infected, struggled for every breath, fought back to live. All of these scenarios are difficult, period.
In addition, the future is uncertain. There is no time frame for when the infection rated of Covid-19 will be mitigated or when a vaccine will be available, no established plan or procedure on how to deal with the unknown aftermath and possible complications. This is scary and challenging. In this country, the expression “new normal” is currently being used everywhere. This is a concept that is used in grief counseling. It describes life after a person has suffered a loss and continues to live with the ongoing impact of the loss. What the new normal will look like is something we all have to find out, and this is a process and journey into the unknown.
Experiencing anxiety in the light of such challenges is a normal reaction because anxiety is a natural response to stress. You might have mild symptoms of distress and anxiety or they may be quite severe and incapacitating. However, living with ongoing uncertainty, heightened levels of stress and arousal, and/or coming face to face with the threat to health and life can lead to more serious mental health issues such as clinical anxiety, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, or depression.
The goal of this article is to provide information about what anxiety is, strategies to help you take care of your mental health in stressful times like this, and what you can do should you continue to suffer from anxiety.
Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling, one that we all know and experience. Occasional bouts of anxiety are natural; it is part of being human. The anticipation of doing a presentation in front of a group, going for a visa interview, planning to apologize to a person you have wronged, etc. can result in nervous, anxious feelings and physical sensations such as a tight stomach, sweaty palms, thoughts going wild, or being preoccupied with the impending risk of vulnerability. In such situations we are afraid and nervous about the outcome. We are designed to feel fear and anxiety because these emotions help us to be alert which helps us take steps to increase our safety.
Experiencing fear is usually directly tied to a concrete situation, object, or person, and it is quite possible that what someone is afraid of may take place. For example, fear kicks in when you see a barking dog running toward your toddler or you hear someone trying to break into your house. In such moments your whole body responds to this threat: The heart beats faster pumping blood to your muscles which enables you to respond right away. This is what we call the fight or flight response. Fear is the internal response to an external threat.
Anxiety has more of an internal than an external focus and the triggers are more diffuse and vague, like worry that “something bad will happen” or that you might be “losing control.” Anxiety occupies the mind with worries about future events and scenarios that seem so real in our mind that we believe they are going to happen for sure. Most of the time the anticipated outcome is bad or even catastrophic.
Anxiety is not just in a person’s head; it is very much a physiological state as well. Physiologically, anxiety produces very similar sensations as fear does, such as a rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, alertness, but also sweaty palms, shortness of breath, dizziness, queasiness, or a dry mouth. Anxiety can make a person restless, uncomfortable, and incapable of concentrating. Anxiety frequently leads to avoiding behavior around the issues in which the person believes “something bad is going to happen.” When anxiety is pervasive or continues over time, it interferes with life in increasingly broad ways. It can lead to missing work, limiting social contacts, increasing isolation, or constantly feeling on edge both physically and mentally and thus reducing productivity and effectiveness. Anxiety can appear in different forms and intensity levels, ranging from a mild uneasiness to a full-blown panic attack. It can be tied to specific situations such tight spaces, spiders, being in public places, or it can be more “free flowing” and “coming out of the blue.”
A common struggle I have heard from clients who live with anxiety is that people around them do not seem to understand that it is a real issue. Many are told by well-meaning people that they just need to trust God more, that perfect love casts out fear. When Scripture is used like this it creates another problem, namely that of doubting their faith or labeling it as failure to trust God’s love. The context of this verse does not say that you should not be afraid of what might happen or not be scared in times of trouble. It says that there is no punishment for those who believe in Christ. Your soul is redeemed. Christians are not exempt from fear. There are so many verses in Scripture encouraging us to “fear not” because we do live in a world that is full of occasions that trigger fear in us. Paul Tournier, a Christian psychiatrist, said that faith does not suppress fear but instead acknowledges it and goes forward in spite of feeling afraid/anxious/worried. Faith takes the fear to God. Fear and hope are two motivators. Fear causes you to say, “I can’t do it” and holds you back, even to the point of being paralyzed by it. Hope is the motivating force. It allows you to say, “I can do this. I will continue to move forward in the midst of this uncertainty.”
Counselors at Olive Tree understand the complexities and stressors of living on the field, and have helped many work through the causes and impacts of stressors, anxiety, and uncertainty. We are available through video counseling to provide a listening ear and professional counseling help in this unprecedented time of uncertainty and stress. Contact us at olivetreecounseling.org to schedule an appointment.
The good news is that you can overcome the debilitating effects of anxiety! And it doesn’t have to be a long, painful process. These steps can overcome it if it’s not pervasive, and counseling can help you overcome it if it’s been longer term.
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