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The shadow pandemic takes its toll

Lately I’ve been feeling tightness in my chest, an inability to take a nice relaxing breath. When I told my boyfriend this, he asked if I felt OK otherwise. We live in a time where anything related to breathing is immediately connected to COVID-19. How I knew it wasn’t a virus is that when I went on a long run, my breathing got easier, not more labored. When I slowed down for a five-minute meditation, my breathing calmed.

After observing my body for several days, I decided the chest tightness and shallow breaths must be related to stress. Since then, I’ve been more cognizant to exercise, get enough sleep, eat healthy, meditate and use other methods to ease the anxiety. 

I’m apparently not the only one feeling the effects of the world we’re living in. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation Poll, nearly half of Americans report the pandemic is harming their mental health. A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000 percent increase in April 2020 compared with the same time last year. The online therapy company Talkspace reported a 65 percent jump in clients since mid-February, with coronavirus-related anxiety dominating patients’ concerns. 

In a Washington Post article, journalist William Wan writes: “When diseases strike, experts say, they cast a shadow pandemic of psychological and societal injuries. The shadow often trails the disease by weeks, months, even years. And it receives scant attention compared with the disease, even though it, too, wreaks carnage, devastates families, harms and kills.”

Combine a pandemic with a downward-spiraling economy, record high unemployment rates, a contentious election, racial unrest, natural disasters and navigating virtual school, and you’ve got millions of people reaching a breaking point. 

While we’re all struggling during this pandemic, healthcare workers are especially vulnerable. In the same Washington Post article, emergency room doctor Flavia Nobay is quoted saying, “We’re used to dealing with sick people and seeing terrible things, but what’s devastating with COVID is the sheer volume. It’s like drinking from a poisonous fire hydrant …. It chips away at your soul,” Nobay said. “You have to hold on to the positive and how you’re helping in the ways you can. That hope is like medicine. It’s as important and tangible as Tylenol.”

And now, as virtual school continues with no end in site, teachers, parents and students are feeling an increased level of stress and anxiety. Students who were already struggling with mental health issues are now faced with isolation and lack of therapeutic services. With Zoom calls and Google Meets, teachers can literally see into a students’ chaotic home life which leaves a teacher feeling helpless and fatigued. Parents are trying to juggle working from home while ensuring their children are getting an education, or entrusting their child’s learning into the hands of a baby-sitter or family member. 

At the end of the day, it’s very overwhelming, and there are no easy answers. The CDC and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America offer suggestions to help ease feelings of anxiety and depression. Along with exercise, getting outside, eating a mood boosting diet, limiting alcohol, finding joy in simple pleasures and staying hydrated, they remind folks to connect with others. While it’s harder to be with one another physically right now, we can stay connected to those in our own homes. We can also use other modalities, such as FaceTime, phone calls, emails and letters, to stay in touch with loved ones from afar.

Brené Brown, professor of sociology, author and expert on vulnerability, offers these four core suggestions for battling COVID-related anxiety and depression. 

  • Understand the toll anxiety takes: Adrenaline has a short life span and cannot fuel us through a crisis that is ongoing. If we haven’t already, we must grieve the loss of normalcy and find a new normal in which to live until we begin to see the other side of this. 
  • Move your body: We hold trauma, grief and anxiety in our bodies. The only way to combat this is to get moving. Whether it’s running, walking, yoga or weight training, we need to move our bodies every day. 
  • Don’t rank your suffering: I feel like I can’t be annoyed that my fifth grader missed his Washington, D.C., trip because that’s nothing compared to the ER doctor who is on the floor every day or the woman who lost her husband to COVID-19. But, Brown says we cannot rank our suffering because it can affect our empathy toward others. Allow yourself to feel what you feel. 
  • It’s OK to be vulnerable right now: Brown relays it best by saying, “There is no courage without vulnerability. I don’t want you to be vulnerable and all gooey for vulnerability sake. I hate that crap. That is not my personality at all. I’m just saying that vulnerability is the birthplace of courage. And if we want to be brave, we have to be real. And that requires risk.”

Although these tips can help the masses, some people are experiencing much worse depression and anxiety. As an altruistic species, we must reach out to our friends and family who may be struggling with more severe emotions or feelings of isolation. And if that person is you, don’t be scared to ask for help. 

(Susanna Shetley is a writer, editor and digital media specialist for The Smoky Mountain News, Smoky Mountain Living and Mountain South Media. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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