Research shows that predominantly Black counties have COVID-19 infection rates three times as high as white counties. This reality is likely a reason why it’s been found that Black women and men have reported higher anxiety during the pandemic than white individuals. But there can be many reasons to be anxious right now that have nothing to do with fighting a respiratory illness, like civil unrest, high rates of unemployment, feelings of displacement as people scatter from the cities to move back home, and so much more. This pandemic has really made people examine their coping mechanisms when it comes to stress, and possibly realize that…they didn’t have any. It’s been proven that environmental changes that bring on anxiety can impact the immune system, so having coping mechanisms isn’t just for emotions – it’s also for the benefit of one’s physical wellbeing.
Perhaps you’ve always told yourself, “Stress is a part of life.” Or “Yeah, I get anxious. So what? Who doesn’t?” But anxiety is not something to let run rampant. It can do more harm to your body than you know. Everybody wants to be tough and just shake it off, but it is important to take anxiety seriously because it can certainly do some serious things to you. We spoke with registered nurse and yoga instructor Recie Munson about how anxiety shows up in the body, and how to manage it.
It’s all connected
“A lot of people don’t see mental health as having physical symptoms, which is something that I love to change the narrative about,” Munson says. “Mental health issues can definitely be physical – it’s proven. I have witnessed them when taking care of patients. And I have also experienced them on a personal level.”
Some physical symptoms include
“Some of the signs and symptoms that I have experienced and also witnessed that anxiety and depression can have on the body are headaches and migraines. [Anxiety] can get to a more intense level that it causes panic attacks, shortness of breath, or a feeling of doom,” she says. “It can present as sweating, a racing heart, and sometimes arrhythmia. It can present as chest pain or heaviness, stomach ache, or tremoring.”
Anxiety and somatic disorders
Munson also explained how prolonged, unmanaged anxiety can cause the body to produce the symptoms of real physical ailments, even if the condition doesn’t really exist. “These are somatic disorders. This is related to stress. What happens is, the body becomes chronically in a stressful state. That energy does not have anywhere to release. The body starts mimicking a health diagnosis, like strokes, heart conditions, or migraines.” Somatic disorders and the symptoms that come with them impact about five to seven percent of the general population, and it is much more prevalent in women than men.
A more serious consequence
“Blood pressure is a silent threat that can wreak havoc on your neurological system. You can start getting migraines. You can have serious conditions from living in prolonged states of stress,” she says. Research shows that more than 40 percent of Black men and women in the U.S. have high blood pressure and that it develops at a younger age than it does for other demographics. It’s not hard to believe that stress could play a part in that. Other scary ways stress can manifest in the body include chest pain, muscle tension and/or pain, headaches and even serious fatigue.
Doctors can’t see it
One reason anxiety can be overlooked in the medical community, says Munson, is that when it presents as a somatic disorder, a patient still looks good “on paper” per se, so doctors may not know what to do about it or be able to take your concerns seriously.
“Unfortunately, what happens is that you can go to a doctor or go to a healthcare provider, and all your labs would be normal, and they won’t be able to find a real diagnosis. But the issue is somatic.,” she says. “Your body has become so overwhelmed that it’s presenting as a health diagnosis.”
How do people mismanage it?
We asked Munson what are some of the ways people mismanage anxiety, and she said there were too many to count. But she stated, “I believe that everyone deals with anxiety on an individualized level. Everyone has their own type of coping skills. What would be unhealthy is if someone used things to try to suppress the anxiety, like through recreational drugs, or blowing it off and not wanting to deal with it.” Better ways to manage anxiety include counting to 10, exercising, taking a moment to be alone when you feel anxious, and easing up on drinking alcohol and caffeine, which can exacerbate anxiety.
Breathing your way out of the storm
As for healthy ways to manage anxiety, Munson is all about working through it with the help of breathing. She says, “I like teaching people about breathwork. Pranayama. Using your breath to help regulate your system. The breath is so powerful and it [Pranayama] literally means life force. Taking intentional breaths can help get you through what could feel like an anxiety storm.” If you’ve ever been told to take a deep breath when you’re feeling overwhelmed, then you would agree the benefits of breathwork are great. When you start to feel anxious, don’t be afraid to take intentional breaths to make yourself feel better.
Meditate (there’s more than one way)
Don’t knock it until you try it. Meditation can help you to clear a mind usually filled with anxiety and aid you in feeling calm when you need it most.
“I also like suggesting meditating. Even if it’s just for three to five minutes daily. Just start a practice. It doesn’t even have to be sitting down,” she says. “There are moving meditations like yoga, cleaning, washing dishes, dancing, running, walking…all of those things are moving meditations.” Studies have actually shown that tasks such as cleaning dishes can calm the mind and put one in a meditative state.
Learn what causes it
Though you can’t completely control whether or not you’ll interact with your triggers, identifying them can at least help you manage your feelings when you know they’re coming. The more you know about what impacts you, the better you can deal with it all. Munson advises, “It’s essential to put your mind in a headspace where you can process the anxiety better. This could be through journaling…finding out your triggers. There are certain things that can trigger anxiety, so finding out your triggers is important because you can prevent the anxiety from happening in that way.”
Seek help on the couch and over the counter
To help you deal best, it’s recommended that you seek out the assistance of a professional who could help you cope with everything, and perhaps, provide you with medication if your anxiety is especially problematic.
“Finding a therapist that you can relate to to help you develop coping skills” is also important, Munson says. “Sometimes you might need to try herbs and supplements and sometimes even pharmacology medication to help you get over the hump.” Research has found that supplements containing extracts from passionflower and kava can be effective at reducing anxiety.