Jan 13, 2022 - COVID

Mental health pros share tips for managing prolonged stress

A GIF of a brain losing energy
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

As our third year of COVID-19 nears, another wave of infections is leaving many in a never-ending cycle of stress.

Why it matters: About four in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. That's up from around 10% from January to June of 2019.

  • Mental health professionals warn that prolonged stress can interfere with sleep and affect your ability to function properly, among other issues.

The big picture: Roughly two-thirds of U.S. psychologists say their waitlists have gotten longer since the pandemic started, and half shared feelings of burnout, per a 2021 American Psychological Association survey.

  • In Philadelphia, the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety saw demand for its services double since the pandemic began, director Lily Brown said.

State of play: Individuals experiencing this heightened emotional state can be hyper-sensitive to pressures, on the one hand, as well as mentally fatigued and numb.

  • "Neither are healthy," Brown said.
  • She said it's not uncommon for clients to talk about concerns about making safe decisions as they navigate COVID-19 protocols, as well as job insecurity.

What to watch: Signals of stress include staying up at night worrying about the future.

  • Stewing about memories from the past, like going through your Instagram feed from before the pandemic.
  • Decision fatigue about what activities are safe.

What to do: Looking for help managing your stress or anxiety? Try these tips.

  • Slow down and focus on one task at a time.
  • Anchor yourself in the present moment.
  • Take consistent breaks, especially away from screens.
  • Have an exercise routine, even if it's a simple walk once a day.
  • Get at least eight hours of sleep.
  • Create a consistent schedule.

What not to do: Avoid isolating yourself. Even if you can’t physically see your loved ones, pick up the phone!

  • Don't engage in excess alcohol or substance use to cope with emotions.

What they're saying: Meghan Musselman, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Temple University, emphasized having a set schedule to decrease the amount of decisions you make in a day.

  • "Just like how our bodies get tired after we do physical work, our brains get tired after we do a lot of mental work. With the pandemic, the number of decisions we're making is increasing," she said.

Meanwhile, Brown said it's part of the human experience right now to struggle with sadness and grief.

  • "The more you can build awareness of your tendencies, the greater freedom you have to make a choice to do something that's more meaningful in that moment," she said.
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