Tune out, get outside: Anxiety, stress spiking along with COVID-19
Special to the Sierra Sun
Fear and anxiety over the novel coronavirus can be overwhelming and we are all dealing with it everyday. Along with social-distancing and isolation, feelings of loneliness can make it even worse.
Local psychologists are saying that anxiety and stress are “spiking” during the pandemic along with obsessive disorders.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says that this fear around the outbreak can cause worry about family and loved ones along with the financial worry from a lost job. There can be disruptions in sleep patterns, difficulty concentrating, changes in eating patterns, but the stress can make mental health conditions even worse.
“Behavioral health is something that every community is concerned about,” said Paige Thomason, director of marketing and communications for Tahoe Forest Health System.
TFHS recently launched a new behavioral health service line that includes psychiatric services, individual and group therapy and medication assisted treatment for substance disorders.
“The timing couldn’t be better with the current state of the world right now,” Thomason said. “There is a lot of uncertainty around COVID.”
TFHS’s behavioral health team consists of psychiatrists, psychiatric nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, marriage family therapists, and bilingual community health advocates. Thomason said there is a growing need for formalized behavioral health services.
“If people are feeling stressed, people should reach out to resources. There is always help,” she said.
“Anxiety is spiking along with the spike in COVID,” said Dr. Barry Barmann, a clinical psychologist at Center for Anxiety and Chronic Worry in Incline Village.
Along with the stress that comes along with a pandemic and social isolation, Barmann said there is an increase in health anxiety also known as hypochondriasis. This centers around jumping to conclusions when any physical change in the body happens.
“A lot of people are being hypervigilant in respect to bodily changes,” he said. “This hyper-awareness causes many people to have sleepless nights and also the need to seek ‘excessive reassurance.’”
Excessive reassurance is that feeling that something is wrong when waking up and that stress causes people to worry and search WebMd or other medical websites to “Google” symptoms. This reassurance also comes in the form of excessively calling the doctors or asking family or friends if they notice something off with you.
Barmann says that anxiety has primarily two default behaviors: avoidance like avoiding places that you feel are dangerous and reassurance seeking.
“It is fine until you hit the point where it is excessive,” he explained.
This constant needing of assurance can become exhausting for the person on the receiving end such as a family member, friend or spouse. Barmann helps people to move away from these sorts of reassurance seeking behaviors at his clinic in Incline.
Barmann is also seeing more people who don’t have an underlying anxiety problem (which is usually the case), but who are experiencing it now and in turn have sleeping disorders. He says watching or reading the news late at night is not a good idea and can lead to a racing mind. He recommends consciously tuning out of the news at times. Be aware, but not excessively. Finding balance is imperative.
“Don’t overdose on information because it is only going to exacerbate the problem, just do what is normal,” he said.
Along with anxiety, Barmann has seen an increase in compulsive hoarding disorders. He says family members will call about a relative having the disorder but since COVID-19, Barmann has seen people with the disorder reaching out themselves. He said that people with the disorder have a fear of contracting the disease and essentially losing their belongings if they die. Barmann said he was surprised by that.
The clinic has also been receiving an increase of calls about obsessive compulsive disorders. Many are worried about contamination or contracting the disease. Barmann said he’s not surprised that people are overly concerned right now.
“I assume almost everybody is worried about what they touch,” he said.
Thoughts of contamination, harm and death can be easily triggered right now.
“Therapists have been very busy since the pandemic has affected everyone,” said Dr. Catherine Aisner, psychologist and marriage counselor in South Lake Tahoe in an email. “I’ve added an extra day of appointments every week, but still can’t see everyone.”
Aisner has been working remotely since March.
“It’s especially hard on people who live alone, who struggle with loneliness or boredom and couples with young children at home who have tremendous responsibilities and can’t get a break,” she said. “It’s so important to stay connected with friends and loved ones whether by video or by getting together in socially-distant ways.”
Aisner said that as a community, we are fortunate living in Tahoe because we have the opportunities to get outside, which is very important for mental health. “Getting through this crisis is going to take strength and resilience,” she said.
Aisner recommended the best ways to handle stress, anxiety, depression and sleep disorders are through social connection, exercise, meditation, yoga, finding ways to help others.
Barton Health psychiatrist, Dr. Joe Hibbeln also agrees that the pandemic has caused an increase in stress related mental health problems in our community and nation.
“We are instructed to physically distance and socially isolate ourselves to prevent infections, however, this creates a conflict with our basic human needs,” he said.
This time is especially hard for at-risk populations like seniors and people with medical conditions because normal activities of life are not the same anymore.
“Even people who have not previously been prone to mental health problems are experiencing difficulties with stress, anxiety, and depression,” he said. “Those people struggling with alcohol and substance use problems are also severely affected.”
It’s difficult, but it is important to get a grasp on stress and anxiety. Hibbeln said that long-term effects of stress and anxiety can include increased risk for cardiovascular disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, stroke and inflammatory diseases.
“Mental health concerns are reported as some of the most urgent health issues in the region according to those surveyed in Barton’s Community Health Needs Assessment,” said Mindi Befu, Barton Health public relations director. “Barton and community mental and behavioral health providers are working to meet these increased patient needs.”
Hibbeln said that many people are struggling with mental health right now, and it’s normal to feel anxious about the impacts of COVID-19. He recommends following the CDC steps to cope and address stress, depression, and anxiety during the pandemic:
Take care of your body by eating healthy well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.
Connect with others by sharing concerns and feelings with friends or family members and maintain healthy relationships and stay in touch with your support system.
Take breaks and make time to unwind and remind yourself that strong feelings will fade. Try taking in deep breaths and enjoy activities that allow for physical distance and safety.
Stay informed. When you feel that you are missing information, you may become more stressed or nervous. Watch, listen or read the news for updates from officials. Be aware that there may be rumors during a crisis especially on social media. Always check your sources and turn to reliable sources of information like local government authorities. Avoid too much exposure to news. Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories. It can be upsetting to hear about the crisis and see images repeatedly.
Seek help when needed. If distress impacts activities of your daily life for several days or weeks, talk to a clergy member, counselor, or doctor.
Local mental and behavioral health resources are listed at bartonhealth.org/behavioralhealth.
Disaster Distress Hotline provides 24/7 crisis counseling, call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained counselor.
Severe stress, anxiety or depression can be life-threatening. If you think you might hurt yourself or others, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255, dial 9-1-1, or go to the nearest emergency room to receive help.
The Tahoe Forest Behavioral Health Office is located at 10833 Donner Pass Road, Suite 201, Truckee. For appointments, call 530-582-3505. The line is for adults 18 and older.
Center for Anxiety and Chronic Worry Clinic is located at 937 Tahoe Blvd #210, Incline Village. Call 775-831-2436 for appointments.
Cheyanne Neuffer is a Staff Writer with the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication to the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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