In a recent interview, Dr. Judson Brewer M.D., Ph.D., author of the book Unwinding Anxiety, discussed the “pandemic” of anxiety that has been either caused by or made worse by the pandemic of COVID-19. He noted that there has been a whopping 250% increase in clinical diagnoses of anxiety disorder in just 2020.
And it isn’t like anxiety wasn’t a major health issue already. Estimates have put the number at close to 40 million Americans who suffer from anxiety every year.
Feelings of fear, worry, and anxiety are certainly not new. In fact, they are probably as old as life itself. They play a very important role in keeping all creatures safe and alive in a world with innumerable threats. They signal to us that we are in unfamiliar territory and that we are out of our comfort zone. This is obviously important for us to avoid danger while we learn more about our environment.
But chronic or habitual anxiety seems to be the manifestation of that innate protective mechanism gone haywire. The behavior persists to varying degrees beyond its initial helpfulness.
Let’s take a look at the COVID crisis as an example and explore some possible ways in which we can dig ourselves out of this mess.
Initially, I would argue that it was only natural to feel a sense of stress and anxiety because so little was known about the virus and how it affected populations. We were all rightly concerned about the capacity of our health care delivery system as well as our own individual immune systems. Would this viral infection overwhelm us? How should we respond?
But, as I’ve written about here, and here, and discussed at length in this video we have learned important facts over time that can help us to get out of our “fear and worry” brain and into our rational brain.
This is only possible, however, if we are able to actually learn these facts and unfortunately, the current purveyors of information in the mainstream media are well aware that “fear sells”. Researchers at Dartmouth recently shared the findings of a study that tracked how various country’s media have covered the pandemic. What they found was that almost every other country mixed in positive news with negative, the US media’s reporting was 87% negative.
THIS APPROACH ISN’T HELPING!
Do you want to know what else doesn’t help anxiety very much? Medications.
Let me explain. When it comes to scientific research on any particular medical intervention, there is a concept called “number needed to treat”. This is an attempt to understand the intervention’s ability to actually make a significant clinical difference in the real world. When it comes to anxiety medications, the number to treat is 5.2. That means that you have to treat 5.2 people in order to get 1 of them to resolve their anxiety. (this doesn’t mean that there is no benefit at all to the other 4 people, but that the benefit isn’t clinically significant in their daily lives).
Do you want to know what intervention has been shown to have a “number needed treat” of 1.3? Mindfulness. Yep, teaching anxious people to slow down, observe themselves mindfully, and become aware of the exact triggers that are driving them is five times more effective than medication!
How could that be?
According to Brewer, at its root, persistent mental rumination temporarily makes our brains feel like we’re actually “doing something” about the thing we’re worried about. Of course, by itself, worry it isn’t affecting any real change to the situation but at least our brains feel some small sense of control. That is what we are craving. We want to feel like we have some control over our lives.
BUT, what if we all learned that there was a better action to take?
In the case of COVID-19, what if we all learned a few simple things that could really reduce our risk? What if these behaviors helped us become more empowered instead of more afraid?
Think About Lifestyle First
The beauty of lifestyle medicine is that behaviors that improve one system also tend to protect other systems. In this case, activities that lower anxiety has also been shown to improve immune health. Nice how nature does that, right?
Here are some powerful reminders of where our focus should be right now and in the forever future.
The CDC just released data showing that over 78% of all hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 have been in people who were overweight or obese. We all have the power to change this risk factor. Granted, many people feel stuck and don’t know exactly what to do to lose weight. If that is the case for you, we invite you to join our next group on the Simple 7 Lifestyle Reset. You could be 20-30 pounds healthier by July 4th!
Recent study results have shown that those who had only engaged in “exercise” (defined as a brisk walk or greater) for 10 minutes or less per week were 250% more likely to have a negative outcome to a COVID infection than those who exercised 20 minutes per day. We all have the power to change this risk factor. Engaging in exercise diverts you from the very thing you are anxious about. Moving your body decreases muscle tension, lowering the body’s contribution to feeling anxious. Getting your heart rate up changes brain chemistry, increasing the availability of important anti-anxiety chemicals. These neurochemicals include serotonin, GABA, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and endocannabinoids like those that are found in CBD. Exercise activates frontal regions of the brain responsible for executive function, which helps control the amygdala, our reacting system to real or imagined threats to our survival. Exercising regularly builds up resources that bolster resilience against stormy emotions.
Vitamin D and Nature
As I’ve shared before, patients with vitamin D deficiency have a dramatically increased risk for hospitalization and death from COVID-19. There are now multiple studies showing this effect including this one. We all have the power to change this risk factor. Getting our vitamin D naturally by getting out in the sun is preferred and it turns out that UV rays are great killers of SARS CoV2 virus and ventilation of open-air makes it nearly impossible to transmit viruses to others. Wouldn’t you know it, it turns out that getting outdoors in nature also profoundly lowers anxiety.
Another recent study surveyed 3,000 healthcare workers from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S. with regard to sleep quality. They found that compared to respondents who had no sleep problems, those with difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or needing to use sleeping pills on 3 or more nights of the week had an 88% greater chance of being infected with Covid-19. In addition, science has long known the association between sleep problems and anxiety. If your habits are getting in the way of a good night’s sleep it may be high time for someone to take on the parental role of telling you, “it’s past your bedtime! Go to sleep!” If you are unable to sleep well due to worry, anxiety, or a racing mind. Try some of these safe and simple solutions, melatonin, GABA, magnesium, a warm bath or shower, journaling, or meditation. If those don’t work it may be time for a deeper workup.
Let’s all take an inventory of what we can do to lower our anxiety and lower our individual risks of negative COVID outcomes. The power is really in our hands.