Imagine you studied weeks in advance for a major exam. You trust yourself. You are confident you have the knowledge you need, and you get a good night’s sleep. The day of the test comes. You sit at the desk and find yourself in a blank stare, unable to comprehend the first question. You think, “Maybe if I check the other questions, I won’t feel so intimidated.”
You flip through a few pages only to feel more panicked than you were at the start. Your hands stick to the pen. Your heart pounds in your throat, your breathing so rapid you feel dizzy. The questions look impossible. You second-guess yourself. Now you feel exhausted. These are feelings of anxiety, and you may experience its symptoms on a daily basis. Now imagine how the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest can make daily life even more stressful.
Dr. Krystal M. Lewis, a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, recently treated a teenager with anxiety whose symptoms significantly increased once the COVID-19 lockdown started. “She began to experience anticipatory anxiety when she left home and panic attacks when in public. She would worry and feel stressed when she had to be social,” Lewis said. “When she was in crowded places, she felt stuck and unable to get help. She would have many worries about worst-case scenarios and experience panic symptoms, such as shortness of breath, feeling hot, racing heart.”
The psychologist treated the teen with cognitive behavioral therapy to address her worries and help her learn to be comfortable in stressful situations. Ultimately her anxiety lessened and she has used cognitive strategies to help manage her anxiety.
This has been a year of surprises. A national school survey administered by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found high levels of stress and symptoms of poor mental health in most high school and college students. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from just a few dozen COVID-19 cases in February, the numbers shot up past 180,000 by the end of March. Three months later, 5.1 million people in the U.S. tested positive for the virus. Youth employment rates dropped drastically. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.2 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 filed for unemployment in a period of two months.
“When we’re feeling anxious, we can, a lot of times feel out of control and just need to remember what keeps us grounded,” said Jennifer Rothman, a senior manager at the National Alliance of Mental Health. She said these activities can be as simple as tuning into our favorite podcasts, riding our bikes, writing whatever we want, baking new recipes, and getting our hands dirty in the backyard. “It’s important to understand that just being a part of the earth can sometimes make our day a little bit more manageable.”
For many young people, frequent news checks and monitoring of COVID-19 data became a daily pattern. Lewis said getting updates regarding the pandemic, politics, or law enforcement can lead to frustration, stress, loneliness and fear. “Depending on the level of stress we feel, as simple as it sounds, mindfulness and deep breathing are incredibly effective techniques that help us regulate and notice our bodies,” Lewis said. These may include devoting 10 minutes to just sit back, stretch, and take long, meaningful deep breaths.
Anxiety is only one of many feelings. You may also feel happiness, sadness, fear, joy, relief, and so many more emotions at points in your daily life. As you try to make sense of what is going on in the world today, there are psychologists, other therapists, and even peers you can confide in whenever you feel overwhelmed or stressed. As important as it is to maintain physical health, it is also crucial to take care of your mental well-being to enhance the quality of life. Positive mental health allows us all to acknowledge our full potential and stay motivated during these stressful times.
Adjoua Kirton is an iGeneration Youth reporter living in New York. Read more stories at igenerationyouth.com.