Mental health experts offer insights on how to overcome anxiety

Newswise — Be flexible. Keep calm. Please be patient with us.

After two years of adjusting to policy changes at work, in schools, on travel, and literally everywhere in society, many people are on the brink of breaking down. They are frustrated, less patient, and tired of the logistical landmines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Should I always wear a mask? What kind of mask? Is it okay to hug my friends anymore? Are my children safe? Can I visit my parents or older relatives?

These types of questions feed the anxiety of many. The lesser-known but all-too-common mental health pandemic is affecting more people than statistics can capture. By early 2022, at the height of the omicron surge, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that just over 40 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 were experiencing symptoms of anxiety. and the last Household Pulse Survey shows that more than 30 percent of adults between the ages of 30 and 49 also indicated that they felt anxious.

“The sense of insecurity about this moment is acute,” said psychology professor Jill Ehrenreich-May, who also leads the Mood and Anxiety Treatment Program for Children and Adolescents at the University of Miami.

René Monteagudo, director of the Counseling Center, said anxiety has been the number one problem affecting students nationally for a decade, but the pandemic has increased the number of cases.

However, mental health experts at the University of Miami say there are ways to overcome the cycle of stress and anxiety brought on by this uncertainty. And there are ways to help others.

Orlando Gonzalez is the director of the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, as well as a licensed mental health counselor and certified employee assistance professional. Viviana Horigian is a professor of public health at Miller School of Medicine and a trained psychiatrist who studies depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, with a particular interest in how teens will fare during the pandemic.

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All four experts offer tips to remind us how to conquer anxiety.

Keep an eye on typical wellness practices like sleep, nutrition, and exercise.

All experts agree that the simplest ways to prevent deterioration of mental health are to never neglect your own well-being and personal care and to maintain daily routines. This can also help protect people from falling into a burnout situation, according to Horigian.

“Make sure you maintain your regular sleep patterns and continue to eat nutritious foods and maintain your exercise habits,” he added. “In addition, self-compassion, self-reflection, meditation and mindfulness are also important.”

Take some time to connect with friends.

Horigian, who studies loneliness, found that making time to make meaningful connections with family and friends is extremely important for mental health, especially among young people. And Ehrenreich-May pointed out that this extends to adults and parents as well, who also suffer from isolation and loneliness.

“If you feel lonely, reach out to a friend, even if it’s just on the phone. It may not be as satisfying as an in-person conversation, but it helps,” Ehrenreich-May said.

Monteagudo added: “Find someone you can talk to. It doesn’t always have to be with a professional therapist, but sharing your struggles with someone really helps.”

Keep the boundaries between your work and home life as much as possible.

The shift to remote work has caused the lines between work and home life to blur, affecting many people’s mental health and leading some to experience burnout. Symptoms of burnout often overlap with signs of anxiety such as trouble sleeping, irritability, feeling overwhelmed, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, as well as a loss of motivation and pleasure from things that were fun in the past.

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To avoid burnout, Horigian suggested that people maintain a separation between work and family life. “The importance of protecting those boundaries for self-preservation is crucial,” he added.

If a situation is irritating you, take a step back.

There are certain strategies, such as imagining your thoughts as leaves in a stream—which psychologists may suggest to help people dealing with anxiety or frustration, but most force you to stop and consider (or reconsider) your thoughts, Ehrenreich-May said. That could also mean a trip to the bathroom or a walk around the block to clear your head.

Provide a sense of structure at home, school or work. This is important for children, students, and employees because it can help reduce anxiety.

All humans, regardless of their age, often imagine worst-case scenarios when they are not given guidance about the future. Therefore, González said that leaders such as parents, managers and faculty members can help safeguard the mental health of their children, students or employees by devising a plan of action that gives everyone a sense of direction.

“There are a lot of question marks in people’s minds today. If you can develop a plan, you’re filling in some of those gaps, so they don’t have to worry as much about next steps,” she added. “Managers can support employees by offering structure and guidance on where the department is headed, even if they may not know the bottom line. They can also reassure people of their value and their place in the plan. That helps people feel like they’re part of the equation and gives them a sense of hope, groundedness, and stability.”

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Focus on the things you can control.

Take an inventory of the things you have influence over at work or in your personal life. Then focus on what you can do independently. This gives you a greater sense of control and you can do more, Gonzalez said.

“We must all recognize that uncertainty will always exist and it is not a bad thing that we are not in control of everything,” he added. “When we recognize and accept this fact, we begin to let go of the need to try to control the uncontrollable or have everything in absolute order.”

Consult with others who may be having difficulties.

If you run into someone you’re worried about, check in with them and make sure they’re okay, Monteagudo suggested.

“Oftentimes, people give clues that something isn’t right or they need help talking about something that’s weighing them down,” she said. “Listen to what is being said through your verbal and non-verbal communication styles.”

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