How do we cope and deal with the stress and anxiety all of us are feeling?

Dr. Julia Samton answers questions from News 12 Long Island Anchorwoman Elizabeth Hashagen and program viewers.

Let’s start off by talking about an upcoming mental health crisis.  Many of us fear that this is going to be the next crisis we are entering.  What do we do now, knowing what we know and where we are, to try to prevent something like that from happening?

As humans, we are all facing a certain degree of anxiety right now.  Covid is a collective trauma that we have been undergoing together.  We came from having our “easier” lives (not perfect, of course, but easier) to having everything turned upside-down, and some of us are pretty shaken.  Moving forward, the most important thing that we can do to fortify ourselves is to…

Do whatever we can to avoid filling in the blanks of the uncertainties ahead with “worse case” scenarios.

It is important to remember that this is not something to beat ourselves up over.  This is a very common human trait.  It is something we all do.  But once we realize that we are thinking about all of the worse case scenarios of what could be, we need to bring ourselves back into the moment, recognize where we are, and know that we do not need to be dealing with all of the disasters that our minds create.  

As places are reopening and people are starting to venture out, we go from a situation where we have been seeing very few people to all-of-sudden being inundated with people.  How do we handle the mental stress of coming back out again?  

Change is very hard no matter what direction.  We have all been cocooning in our homes, creating comfort and isolating where we can.  It has been helpful in some ways, but in other ways, it has been making us even more anxious because social connection is so important to us.  Ultimately…

It is going to take a leap of faith to reenter the world again, and we are reentering it with the virus, not running from it, but living with it. 

Therefore, we need to have faith in ourselves by using the measures set out by the authorities, for example, wearing masks, not touching your face, hand washing and staying 6 ft apart.  By doing all of this, it is going to give us a tremendous amount of comfort.  As for how to deal with all of the uncertainties, we will have to take that leap and start living our lives, even though we recognize that we might be feeling a certain amount of hesitation.

A new study from the American Psychological Association found more than 80% of US adults report that the nation’s future is causing them a significant amount of stress.  Coupled with all of the other stresses from our daily lives, what can we do when we feel all of these pressures happening simultaneously?

It is no question that we have our hands full.  Our nation is going through a tremendous transition.  We are handling many different fears of our own, and in some cases, we are holding the fears of our children, as well as taking care of the elderly people in our lives.  What we want to remember—the most important thing in that whole picture—is that…

We need to do what we can to remain anchored. 

No matter what life is bringing us, if we recognize and work on how we are feeling on the inside, then we can work towards feeling more centered and more grounded.  In turn, this will help us to handle things as they come one-by-one.

Some of the anxiety that we are having right now is actually somewhat adaptive because we are afraid of a virus that we have been told can be deadly.  The first 200,000 years humans were on this planet, we were running from deadly predators.  We are all very, very geared to knowing how to survive, and our brains are trying to figure out how to overcome this new danger.  While some of it is adaptive, another piece of it really can be quite destructive.  This is when we let our worse fears and imaginary worse case scenarios over come us.  Then we need to come back into the present moment, and let go of any made-up situations our mind has created that does not serve us.

A lot of people talk about having anxiety, even when they have not been properly diagnosed.  What does having anxiety really mean?

Anxiety in general means fear of the unknown or fear of the future.  We can sometimes feel it in our bodies.  Our muscles become tense, our heart starts to race, we might start to sweat or we might start to feel very sort of pumped up and amped up.  Other times it is our thoughts that are out of control.  “Oh my god, what if this is going to happen, if only I did this differently, then my life would be different,” etc.  Those kinds of phrases and sayings are very common and they start to feed the emotions.

Most of the time when we talk about anxiety, what we are talking about is fear. 

Fear of the unknown, fear of what is going to happen to us, fear that we have wildly screwed up our lives somehow.  What we need to continue to remind ourselves is that most of us are very good problem solvers, as long as we stay where we are in the moment and not let our brains and our bodies get the best of us.

What are some things that we should be doing as we begin to have mental health conversations with our friends and family?

It is our job—for each and every one of us—to work on how we can feel more centered and more grounded on the inside.  There is so much happening in the world right now that it is quite overwhelming.  Every day we hear more and more stories about how our world is changing.  Often times it doesn’t look like it is for the better.

We tend to pay attention to the negative things around us.  Let’s try to stop doing that.  Try to look inward.

As human beings we are described as being “Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good,” which means we have a predilection to look for the negative things.  Instead, let’s see what we can do to reassure ourselves.  Sometimes that means going for a walk, keeping regular exercise, maintaining a meditation practice, journaling, expressing gratitude, or anything that we can do with ourselves to help us feel more at peace and more at ease, even if everything around us seems contentious.

There are people who have some preexisting conditions, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse or eating disorders, who can find their trigger in this climate.  Obviously, they cannot meet in the way that they used to, or do some of the things that help them, but they still need those connections.  What can they do until that time comes?

I have been continually impressed with how resilient we are as humans.  We must really embrace our creative spirit, and try to figure out other ways that we can manage our feelings.  A lot of the things that you just listed, things like substance abuse, over-eating, etc., those are ways that people try to get rid of their anxiety.  If they are feeling fearful or they are feeling down—what do they do—they try to reach for something from the outside in order to quell that.  Sometimes it is alcohol sometimes it is food.

Instead of reaching for something on the outside, what we can do is try to think about ways we can take care of ourselves from the inside.

Sometimes that means streaming a class, joining an online support group or reading fiction—which has been shown to be a huge anxiety reliever.  Even engaging in something as simple as a meditation practice can help.  Meditating is something that costs nothing and that you do not necessarily need to do as part of a group or a community.  You can even download an app for it.  It is a proven method to building resilience and strengthening our inner musculature to help us feel fortified to handle whatever comes our way.

For people who have a tele-health visit or a primary care visit, are there certain mental health symptoms that they should let their doctor know about?

Absolutely.  If you are going to the doctor, whether it is for a well check or if you are going for a specific medical problem, it is a good idea to talk a little bit about what is happening in your mental life and how you have been feeling.  Anxiety, depression and other mental health issues can exacerbate illness, even if it is a chronic illness, and it also suppresses immunity.  This is something that is really important for your doctor to recognize, and if they know the whole picture of what is going on with you, then they can offer the best treatment.

Mental health disorders often times have some physical symptoms.  There is a connection if you are getting headaches or if you are having stomach issues, right?

Often times, particularly in Western society, we are taught to hide our vulnerability.  We tend to hold it in—and the more that we point it inward—it can cause physical symptoms.  The majority of primary care visits actually have something to do with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues.  Sometimes it leads to deleterious coping mechanisms, like over-eating or smoking, and many times the aches and pains that we are feeling are a result of internalized anxiety.

Do you think some of the mental health issues will end up being destigmatized because people who never struggled with anxiety before might have a greater empathy now?

We are moving in that direction.  This is one of the things which social media has been very helpful.  As much as people are often posting about their “perfect” lives, we are seeing more and more people who are posting about their feelings and their losses.  This is especially true for the younger generations, as they are a little more comfortable talking about their emotions than older generations.  Going through something like this collectively will spring a certain language to describe some of the feelings that we have, and hopefully because of this, we will all feel a little bit more forthcoming with sharing them.

A viewer from the show writes in to ask, “I fear how I am going to survive because I still haven not received my unemployment.  Could somebody please help me?  I’m running out of money.”

It is very unfortunate that some of us are facing extremely difficult challenges.  Something that we all do (even mental health professionals) when we are anxious about our problems, is that we often times want to avoid whatever it is that is making us feel this way.  Things like—getting on the phone with unemployment, going through those long wait times and trying to convince someone that you need help when you are not so comfortable with asking for help—these are things that you might not necessarily want to do.  Even though all of your emotions might feel like you need to protect yourself and avoid the very thing that is making you anxious, move towards it anyway.  Do what you can to advocate for yourself, and to make sure that you are utilizing the resources that are available to you in order to get what you need.

Another viewer writes in, “I already have had anxiety for a very long time.  This has been so hard worrying about my kids, family and just praying for everyone.  I am constantly calling everyone and checking up on them.” 

Sometimes we have a funny little equation in our head that thinks the more we worry about things, the better off we will be.  We believe that somehow our mental energy we use worrying will “keep the plane flying” or will “keep our relatives safe.”  The truth is that no matter how much you worry, it does not necessarily help you protect those around you, and it can certainly deteriorate your quality of life.  So give yourself a little bit of a break.  Give yourself permission to take more time for yourself with things that will help you to feel better.  Engage in activities like exercising or laughing with a friend or listening to music, because the worrying is not magically going to help anything.

One viewer shares, “I have anxiety and I have to find ways of coping.  I go outside for fresh air and take a walk.  It is a relief.”

If you really look at the literature, there are a few things that we can do that are authoritatively proven that can help us to feel better, and one is being in nature.  A simple walk in nature is incredibly helpful.  Also proven to help is reading fiction, as it shows how other people are living, the choices they make and how that might impact their life.  Even though it is from someone else’s mind, it is still a life that we can imagine and see how it could work out for us.  Then there are things like starting a gratitude practice, journaling, and spending time with friends and family.  These are all things we can do to help ourselves feel better now and fortify ourselves for the future.

Viewer Carole Gaine Corr writes in, “The pandemic brought back anxiety, panic, and internal depression from 9/11 to the surface again.  What makes it harder this time is the surrounding environment.  Before, everyone joined together, now we are too much apart and have lack of concern for our fellow man. I have fear that I never had before.  I am afraid my family or I will be hurt by these mobs of divisiveness.  I did all I could to be safe from Corona, only to deal with this.”

One of the difficult things about trauma is that it recapitulates trauma.  So, it is understandable that we might be feeling some of the same ways that we did around 9/11, which is a trauma that we can all relate to (those of us that were alive during it).  What you need to do is utilize some of those same skills that helped you to move forward after 9/11.  Connect with others, get regular sleep, exercise, eat well, do the things that you know will make yourself feel better, and of course, speak to a mental health professional when needed.

“What do you believe ‘normal life’ will look like from this point on? Six months down the road? A year down the road?” – viewer Erinn Lynsey Urena 

Even though I do not have a crystal ball, I still believe that we will be better off than we are today.  I feel like we are moving in a positive direction.  We have all of the most brilliant minds in the world working on a treatment and a cure.  As a society we are growing, and we are going to be better than we are today.