As anxiety soars, experts recommend screening
Anxiety is like the body’s alarm system. Is yours telling you something?
Mental health concerns have skyrocketed since the onset of COVID-19, with 41.5 percent of adults experiencing recent symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To help detect and treat mental disorders earlier, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), now recommends that all adults under 65, including pregnant and postpartum women, be screened for anxiety. The USPSTF is an independent, volunteer panel of national experts that provides guidance for the medical community. Earlier this year, the panel recommended anxiety screening for teens and depression for adults.
Anxiety is like the body’s alarm system, alerting us to potential dangers, both real and imaginary. In recent years, that alarm has been sounding loud and often.
Anxiety can develop into a serious mental health condition under any circumstances—but often, it’s triggered by fear, stress and worry, and the pandemic certainly checks off those three boxes for many people.
“The problem is, many people aren’t aware of anxiety,” said Betty Jean, a licensed professional counselor and Director of Call Center Services at The Mental Health Association in New Jersey (MHANJ). “They know something is wrong, but they don’t have a name for it.”
What does anxiety feel like?
Anxiety feels different depending on who you are. Some people become depressed, some angry and others engage in nervous habits. That’s why it can be difficult to identify anxiety.
However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are some common anxiety symptoms:
- Feeling restless or wound-up
- Feeling on edge or irritable
- Being easily fatigued
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having muscle tension
- Having difficulty controlling feelings of worry
- Having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, restlessness, or unsatisfying sleep
Anxiety is a normal emotion and can even be helpful for some situations, such as keeping us alert for a job interview or big test. But anxiety becomes a problem when these temporary stresses don’t go away, and the symptoms start to interfere with work performance, school, or family relationships.
“Anxiety is ‘bad’ when it prevents us from managing our daily responsibilities and fulfilling our roles as parents, co-workers, spouses or friends,” said Jean.
For example, those who have panic attacks—sudden fear without warning—can feel symptoms including chest pain and discomfort, tingling feet and hands, a feeling of loss of control and a racing heart, according to WebMD. These symptoms can make you feel exhausted. When panic attacks recur and you fear having more attacks, that can lead to panic disorder.
Long-term anxiety is also connected to many physical health conditions, including high blood pressure and heart issues, and other mental health conditions such as depression. “Your level of stress impacts your brain and your body,” said Jean.
Coping with anxiety
Many factors contribute to the risk of developing anxiety, from your genetics to experiencing traumatic events like the pandemic. But most people have specific causes that trigger bouts of anxiety. These can range from social pressure to financial difficulties to relationship problems.
The first step in coping with anxiety is identifying these triggers and then using strategies to prevent or navigate around these triggers.
One of the most effective strategies, said Jean, is recognizing the factors that you can control. When dealing with complex situations like the pandemic that we can’t directly impact, it’s helpful to distract ourselves with tasks that can be accomplished. It can be as simple as making a healthy meal or completing a workout.
“By focusing on things that we can do, we give ourselves a sense of empowerment and achievement, which help us feel better about ourselves,” said Jean.
Other anxiety coping techniques include:
- Deep breathing exercises
- Practicing yoga
- Establishing a healthy sleeping and eating routine
- Avoiding alcohol and recreational drugs
- Talking with friends or family about your worries
When to seek professional care for stress and anxiety
Self-care techniques may not always be enough. For clinically diagnosed anxiety disorders, counseling or psychotherapy sessions can teach people different ways of thinking about and reacting to anxiety-producing situations. In some cases, medications can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, including extreme fear or worry.
At MHANJ, a statewide non-profit organization, Jean directs a call center that acts as a “gateway to care” for people having mental health or substance use challenges. While the call center doesn’t provide direct therapy to clients, it helps educate them on anxiety symptoms they may be experiencing and directs them to the right places for care.
“We offer a space for people to talk in a confidential setting, so they can get the support they need to take the next step,” said Jean.
Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey is also committed to helping people with anxiety take the next step toward quality, affordable mental health care. Visit the Horizon behavioral care website or call us at 1-800-626-2212 (TTY 711). You can also check out our guide to accessing mental health resources during the pandemic.