Earlier this month, the World Health Organization declared that the pandemic was no longer a global emergency. That’s wonderful news for sure, but many people know very well that it’s still not over for them.
Three-plus years of anxiety, fear and loneliness have taken an enormous toll that behavioral health professionals are just beginning to quantify. Already, the numbers appear overwhelming.
Before the pandemic, an estimated eight percent of the U.S. population lived with persistent anxiety. That number has now increased to more than 28 percent. Prescription medications to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression — which had been decreasing — are skyrocketing. Alcohol-related deaths, which accounted for 14.5 per 100,000 deaths in 2019, jumped to 21.1 per 100,000 in 2021.
The impact on children and adolescents has been particularly brutal. Health experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nearly 75 percent of youth up to the age of 18 have experienced a decline in their mental health as a result of the pandemic. And the feeling of stress is rampant, as worries about health, finances and the future took hold when the coronavirus struck and have lingered past the emergency. Stress is a natural emotion that helps us get through a challenging moment. Three years of unrelenting stress can ultimately damage our health.
As if that all isn’t enough, a new advisory issued by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy calls attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation and lack of connection in our country. “Disconnection fundamentally affects our mental, physical and societal health,” Dr. Murthy reports. “Loneliness and isolation increase the risk for individuals to develop mental health challenges in their lives, and lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking daily.”
As individuals, families and as a community, we have a long road ahead before we finally overcome the aftereffects of the most devastating public health crisis in a century. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and right now is an excellent time to take steps, big and small, to improve how we feel.
Any symptoms that disrupt your ability to experience happiness and work productively need attention. A great resource to find help is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at SAMHSA.gov. Scroll down, click the “Find Treatment Near You” button and enter your ZIP code. A complete list of community resources will help start your journey toward better mental health.
For those of us who recognize that stress and/or loneliness significantly impacts our lives, there are many easy-to-learn practices that truly help. We recommend that you start with these three: a relationship list, a gratitude list and mindful breathing to reduce stress.
Write down your connections — the people or even pets with whom you interact — and consider how important each one is in making you feel happy and safe. If your list is short, work on adding more positive connections to your life. Studies prove that social connections (absent a serious health issue) help us live longer and happier lives.
When you feel stressed, everything appears negative. We tend to over-estimate threats and under-estimate opportunities. Our world gets narrow and we miss out on all of the fun. Make a list of all that you are grateful for; everything that you appreciate about your life. Read the list twice a day. It will help to heal your brain.
And finally, try this breathing exercise: Breathe normally for a minute and count how many breaths you take during that time. Do it again for another minute, this time paying close attention to the moments after exhaling but before taking the next breath. Focus on that peaceful and quiet part of the breath cycle. It’s a great way to feel better and relieve stress.
Even though the emergency is over, our brains are still in alarm mode. Let’s start reversing the toxic effects of stress, isolation and loneliness. Call a friend and take a walk. Count your blessings. And breathe.
Christine Macbeth, a licensed independent social worker, is president and CEO of the Brien Center. Dr. Jennifer Michaels is medical director of the Brien Center.