Behavioral Remedies for Anxiety and Depression in the Age of Coronavirus

By Dr. Erynn M. Burks

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a yearly movement that has become even more important in the age of coronavirus. Around the world, people are being asked to maintain physical distance while keeping social connection, a task which is proving particularly challenging for many of us. In fact, this time of uncertainty and social distance has made it more difficult for us to maintain our mental health, and in the US, mental health professionals are beginning to see an alarming new trend – a rise in anxiety and depression in the face of the pandemic.

Anxiety and depression are both serious mental health disorders, and are extremely common in the general population. Approximately one in five people have an anxiety disorder, and depression is the number one cause of disability among US adults ages 15 to 44. Together, anxiety and depression affect more than 50 million American adults every year. Despite recent increases in the rates of both conditions, we are not without recourse; we might not be able to get to the therapist’s office, but armed with the knowledge of what each disorder is and how it manifests, we can all adopt appropriate behavioral strategies to help lift the fog.

More Than Nerves, Bigger Than Sadness

Anxiety is a mental health disorder characterized by excessive worry, agitation, or fear that interferes with daily activities. There are many types of anxiety disorders, but generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are particularly common. Anxiety disorders have a variety of symptoms, but may show up as hypervigilance, restlessness, racing thoughts, sweating, racing heart or chest discomfort, nausea, and a sense of impending doom.  

Conversely, depression is a mood disorder characterized by a low mood that lasts for at least two weeks and remains consistent across most situations. Depression has many symptoms, but may show up as persistent sadness, general discontent, or hopelessness and loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. Other symptoms include anger, mood swings, restlessness, weight changes, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentration, memory loss, and preoccupation with death, dying, or suicidal thoughts.

The causes of these disorders are unknown, although research suggests that a combination of biological, psychological, social, and environmental factors play a significant role. Despite the scientific debate on their underlying causes, one this is clear: the emotional, behavioral, physical, and cognitive symptoms of anxiety and depression are debilitating and prevent individuals from fully engaging in their daily lives.

Behavioral Strategies to Help You Cope

First line therapies for anxiety and depression include anti-anxiety and antidepressant drugs as well as talk or cognitive behavioral therapies. Although these methods have proven highly effective, they can take weeks before you start to see results. For individuals waiting for traditional therapies to take action or for those who would rather pursue alternative methods, there are behavioral strategies you can use to ease your anxiety and depression symptoms on your own.

Practice Gratitude – Gratitude is being appreciative of what we have, both tangible and intangible. The spin cycle of anxiety and darkness of depression can make the idea of gratitude seem impossible, but positive psychology suggests this practice of thanksgiving can actually make us happier overall and refocus our minds on the present. Practice this discipline by creating a daily “gratitude journal,” listing 3 to 4 things that you are grateful to have in your life, no matter how small.

Practice Movement – It is no secret that exercise is great for your body, but did you know it can change your brain? Just a few minutes of aerobic exercise can induce anti-stress effects and improve feelings of anxiety. Research also suggests that low-intensity aerobic exercise (e.g., walking, riding a bike) can improve function in the hippocampus (a brain region that helps regulate mood) and relieve symptoms of depression. Try setting some time aside for exercise even in the midst of nationwide stay-at-home orders by taking a brisk walk around your block. Just a few minutes a day can start to ease your symptoms.

Practice Mindfulness – In recent years, mindfulness meditation has exploded in its popularity, but the practice reaches far beyond social media posts and internet blogs – its effects are backed up by hard science. Research shows that mindfulness modifies brain function in areas that control stress and mood. Because of this, even short meditation sessions can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, making it an easy and viable treatment option for many. Unlike other forms of meditation, the goal of mindfulness is not relaxation, but simply to be present – present in mind, present in body. By practicing this, we learn to observe our minds with objectivity rather than judgement, to know how emotions feel inside of our bodies, to observe thoughts as they are and let them go, and to rewrite the stories we tell ourselves about our emotions. Smartphone apps like Headspace and Calm are easy ways to try mindfulness meditation while waiting out the pandemic.

Behavior modification can be useful for coping with mild symptoms of anxiety and depression, but if you experience serious symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pain or thoughts of suicide, contact your healthcare provider immediately. 

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