- Experts say we are living through a historically stressful time, with chronic stress from unrelenting issues.
- They recommend people focus on taking care of themselves first by eating a balanced diet, spending time outdoors, and talking with others who have similar concerns.
- Experts hope the current stressful time will encourage people to take mental health more seriously.
COVID-19 and climate change and elections.
Add to that Afghanistan, masks, wildfires, and hurricanes, and you’ve got more than a few reasons to recoil as you travel through your daily life.
If it feels like it’s too much to handle, there are numbers that back up that current collective stress level.
According to Jillian Hughes, a spokesperson for Mental Health America, more clicks than ever have been coming into online stress indicator surveys.
“The number of people screening with moderate to severe symptoms of depression and anxiety in the first half of 2021 is similar [to] the number from 2020 and remains higher than the number of people screening at risk prior to COVID-19,” Hughes told Healthline.
In the first half of 2021, 79 percent of people who took an anxiety screening exhibited moderate to severe symptoms, and 84 percent of people who took a depression screening scored with moderate to severe symptoms.
The organization’s annual State of Mental Health in America report pulls no punches when it declared, “Your mental health is worsening.”
Why stress levels are rising
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the only thing raising anxiety levels.
Experts say the stress of that singular situation was challenging enough. When you tack on things such as climate change, wildfires, election questions, and war, it can become too much for most of us.
“It’s time to recognize that we are wired to cope with acute stress well, but not chronic stress,” Dr. Marni Chanoff, an integrative psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, told Healthline.
Chronic stressors, over time, can lead to a depletion of our ability to cope, Chanoff said, and even push us toward — or into — depression.
With all that is going on in the world, she said, everyone may be feeling some anxiety, stress, or both.
“It does vary from person to person,” Chanoff said. “We all have specific things that worry us more and make us feel a loss of control over our lives.”
“For each one of us now, there are several potential stressors,” she added.
“So many of us feel out of control,” she told Healthline. “Half the nation is on fire and the other half is underwater.”
A second pandemic
C. Vaile Wright, PhD, senior director for healthcare innovation with the American Psychological Association, said we could, as a society, be facing a second pandemic: a mental health pandemic.
“If the research we are seeing holds, we’ve got a (mental health) pandemic on our hands,” Wright told Healthline.
Part of the reason could be the focus on the current pandemic, she noted.
“Part of the issue is that from being in a pandemic, all our focus has been on physical health,” Wright said. “There has been no ‘Mental Health Dr. Fauci.’”
Dr. Vivian B. Pender, president of the American Psychiatric Association, said she believes this could be one of the most stressful times for people in recent history.
“Virtually no one alive has ever experienced a worldwide pandemic,” she told Healthline.
Pender pointed out the fears of parents of schoolchildren, the emotional and physical challenges of working on the front lines, and the constant flow of information on everything as fuel to the fire that can be anxiety.
Taking care of yourself first
What’s a person to do?
“People are so burned out,” Pender said, “and what I tell people is that it’s just so important to take care of yourself.”
Experts have a number of recommendations for coping.
Pender suggests doing a self-checkup. Ask yourself how you’re doing. Are you tired, anxious, depressed? Use what you see in yourself to take action.
She also recommends limiting your exposure. That means cutting back on your television and social media time.
“Especially before bedtime. Sleep is really important, and turning off your phone (and any other device) an hour before sleep will help,” Pender said.
Ackrill said people shouldn’t assume they’re alone in this battle.
“Some of us are more resilient, but most of us are struggling,” she said. “Don’t assume that the person beside you is doing better.”
“It has taken enormous effort to face all of this,” Ackrill added. “Nobody has not spent energy on it. Even processing the news. I don’t know who can watch the Afghanistan story and not be impacted. No matter what you believe, human suffering is painful to see.”
Pender also recommends getting regular exercise. And don’t think that means you must sign up for a gym or a sports league.
Rather, find time to get outside and walk or garden — anything simple that brings you fresh air and makes you move.
“Don’t overthink it or overdo it,” she said, “because all that will do is add stress.”
She also urges people not to turn to substances for relief. Alcohol, drugs, or smoking is not the solution, she said.
Chanoff suggests that people focus inwardly. She recommends having daily activities to keep on an even keel.
“Focus on finding your own sense of strength,” she said.
To do that, she suggests, each day, find some slow, quiet, and still time to “connect with your clear, strongest self.”
In addition, Chanoff suggests to reach outward. Rather than retreat to your own private world, people should connect with like-minded others to make a difference.
“We cannot bury our heads in the sand,” she said. “Connect actively to help (whatever situation is stressing you out). Finding a community with common values and goals is a good step.”
Chanoff also suggests “building your own mental health toolbox.”
In it, you can have free guided meditations, a balanced diet, and “outside time” every day.
“I am a big proponent of helping people realize they have the power to take control of their lives,” she said.
Remember, the experts say, that you may not feel “normal” because none of this really is normal.
“We are dealing with real existential threats,” Chanoff said. “Climate change, tornadoes, wildfires, and that’s just local. These are tricky times.”
A good plan, she said, may be to not expect to necessarily feel like you once did, at least not yet.
“There are waves of stress, fear, and anxiety coming at us,” Chanoff said. “It’s a lot like grief.”
She added that people may need to understand that they’ll have harder days than others and not always move ahead in a straight line.
“I’m finding that now,” she said. “People are like, ‘OK, I think I can cope.’ And then other days they are back to ‘I just can’t.’”
When to seek help
While community, friends who can listen, and family who cares all help, sometimes a person needs more.
“If you’re feeling like your symptoms are impacting your ability to function, if they’re getting in the way of you showing up however you need to show up, you should seek help,” Chanoff said.
“If you notice changes in mood, sleep, eating, activity, or enjoyment, and it lasts 2 solid weeks, you need to talk to someone,” Pender said.
She said people can reach out to caring friends for an ear. But often, a mental health expert is needed.
Her great hope? That this time of mental health instability for many people helps the world understand mental health better and treat it more effectively in the future.
“It’s totally normal not to feel OK right now,” Pender said. “I say: Nervous is the new normal.”
“I hope that helps the stigma decrease and fade away,” she said.
“If everyone is feeling nervous, perhaps we’ll see less discrimination around mental health,” she added, “because just about everyone has a mental health challenge right now.”
Written by Moira McCarthy on August 30, 2021 — Fact checked by Maria Gifford