If you’re feeling anxious or depressed right now, you’re not alone. Daily pressures can trigger stress, and our reaction to those stressors can set off symptoms of anxiety or depression or both.
In fact, 79 percent of adults say that the pandemic is adding stress to their lives, according to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Normal anxiety is a warning system that alerts us to threats and helps us prepare for challenges. Depression is a major mental illness that negatively changes how we feel, think and act — it’s not just feeling sad. The two share common symptoms. Both anxiety and depression hurt our ability to concentrate, trigger restlessness and fatigue, and disrupt sleep. They share similar biological mechanisms in the brain, and both can be triggered by social stressors, says Vaile Wright, senior director for health care innovation for the APA.
“It’s totally normal to feel abnormal right now,” says Wright. “We need to give ourselves some grace, and not judge ourselves for not doing as well as we hope.”
When we can't get rid of our stressors, we can improve how we react to feeling anxious or overly worried. We just need to figure out which tools work best for us, and use them consistently.
For starters, we can shore up our mental health by connecting to our emotions every day. This self-check can include asking ourselves questions like, “How am I today?” or “Was I triggered today in any way?”
Just the act of saying, “I feel anxious right now,” activates the parts of our brain that helps us organize and regulate our emotions, and also calms the emotional part of the brain, says Alejandra Gonzalez Rodriguez, a family and marriage therapist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.
Making this a daily habit is not easy, says Gonzalez Rodriguez, because we’ve lost our natural transitions: getting up, traveling to work, taking the kids to school. She suggests starting new routines by adding in habits aimed to make us feel well, and sticking to them.
“Every person has to develop their own sense of ownership over this,” Gonzalez Rodriguez says.
We can make positive changes by prioritizing what Wright calls the “foundational four”: healthy food, exercise, adequate sleep and social connections (even if the latter looks different right now).
If this advice sounds straight from a parenting handbook, Wright says adults are not that different from children. “When children are hungry, they are not rational; when they are tired, they are not rational,” she says. “It really is that basic.”
Carrying around anxiety and depression can make the changes we need for good mental health seem overwhelming. Wright suggests sticking to a basic routine, like getting up and going to bed at the same time and keeping regular mealtimes. Having this foundation in place keeps our emotions balanced enough to find and add stress-reducing coping skills.
Toolbox for the Senses
Wright encourages people to create a toolbox of activities that engage your mind, body and senses, such as puzzles and games, walking or other exercises, taking a hot bath or lighting a scented candle. Assembling a collection of activities from each of these categories that you can rely on is important for your mental health, she says.
The trick with exercise is to find something you will crave, because it takes more willpower to force yourself to do something you don’t like, says Charles Raison, a psychiatrist and researcher specializing in depression at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “In the abstract, we all want to exercise, but we may not want to put on those running shoes and head outside,” he says.
If you don’t feel motivated enough to move, heating your body in a hot bath for 30 minutes, about an hour or so before bedtime, doesn’t call for much discipline but will raise your mood, says Raison. Just keep the water hot, but not so hot you burn yourself.
Improve sleep by making your bedroom as cool, dark and quiet as possible. In the morning, expose yourself to light. Step outside for a few minutes — even cloudy days provide enough light to lift our mood. If you need more of a boost, talk to your doctor about using light therapy.
Unfortunately, not everything we try at home will help. We may not always recognize when our own anxiety or depression reaches the breaking point, because the progression can be so slow.
Be on the lookout for early signs of too much stress, such as irritability in ways not normal for you, like snapping at your family. Notice if you go several weeks without getting much sleep, or have started drinking to cope.
If stress starts to interfere with your life in a big way — you can’t work, you’re skipping classes, you’re not taking care of yourself or your family, and especially if you’re starting to feel life is not worth living or you’re having thoughts of hurting yourself — get help right away, says Raison.
You can call your doctor or insurance company for a referral. You can also find therapists through an online locator, such as the one at Psychology Today. If none of those work, try asking friends and family if they have seen anyone or have recommendations, says Wright. You can get immediate help through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Finally, remember that we all need to cut ourselves some slack, says Wright.
“People can expect to have good days and bad days, and that is OK. The trick is, once you’ve had ice cream for lunch, and you’ve just doomscrolled all day, just remember, the next day is a new day,” says Wright.