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  • Writer's pictureThe Beacon Today

Pandemic vs. panic epidemic: How people with anxiety cope with COVID-19

Updated: May 26, 2020

In a world that dutifully dictates the mantra “bigger is better,” it’s quite rare for society to find minor details significant. But according to humanity's instinctive social sphere, nothing can be as life-altering as the physical touch (or lack thereof) administered by another person. (Photo courtesy of Alejandro Gumera.)

Take a moment, close your eyes and imagine yourself in the following scenario: It’s a brand new day, and one that is off to a refreshing start. The sun is shining, the people around you are smiling and it feels like your feet are walking on air.

And then, in a matter of mere seconds, all of these delightful sensations are violently swept away.

The heartbeat that was just skipping to life’s beautiful tune starts racing at a million miles per minute, picking up the pace to match its accompanying palpitations. A surge of alarm wreaks havoc inside your body, viciously taking your breath away and blocking out all light, all sound and eventually all reason.

As much as she would like them to, the symptoms conveyed in the scenario above don’t simply disappear each time she opens her eyes. For Heidi Melendez-Adorno, 21, they’re a physical manifestation of the deep-rooted anxiety her body forces her to endure on a daily basis.

“I show a lot of physical symptoms,” Melendez-Adorno said. “When [my anxiety] gets super overwhelming, it shifts into [something] kind of like depression. I can get so overwhelmed with my emotions that I become numb.”

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Melendez-Adorno has unfortunately seen her physical symptoms present themselves more frequently, a stark contrast to how she felt before the outbreak became so severe.

Having struggled with anxiety for as long as she can remember, Melendez-Adorno was officially diagnosed with clinical anxiety when she was Baker Acted by family members at the age of 16.

Initially launched in 1972, the Baker Act is a Florida-based practice that allows an emotionally unstable person’s loved ones to have them forcibly removed from the home and detained in a mental health rehabilitation center until medical professionals release them.

Although they may raise some awareness in the big, wide world of diseases and disorders, the symptoms commonly associated with anxiety and panic disorders are often underestimated by those who’ve never genuinely experienced them.

With the COVID-19 pandemic on the rise and little hope for a quick return to normalcy, individuals previously suffering from anxiety have found themselves in even worse states of fear, hysteria and shock.

Correspondingly, the worldwide progression of such feelings have granted individuals who don’t struggle with underlying mental health issues the smallest glimpse of what individuals like Melendez-Adorno have been brutally subjected to for years.

As individuals around the world are preyed upon by the exponential growth of the lesser known “panic epidemic,” psychologists and medical researchers alike find themselves at an impasse over how to help those struggling with anxiety at this time.

Individuals suffering from symptoms of severe anxiety often struggle to open up to others about what they’re thinking and feeling. After all, how can you make someone understand the position you’re in when your mind can’t even give you clear signals of what it needs to feel safe? (Photo courtesy of Alejandro Gumera.)

One of the best solutions to anxiety and clinical depression is the physical presence of family members and loved ones, according to the findings of psychologist Susan Pinker.

“Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters and, like a vaccine, they protect you now, in the present and well into the future,” Pinker said. “Simply shaking hands or giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust, and lowers your [body’s] cortisol levels. It lowers your stress.”

Pinker is not the only mental health professional to conclude that physical affection is a powerful antidote to physical and mental ailments.

As researchers, psychologists and philosophers have all come to discover, the human body has deemed socialization an absolute necessity. This revelation itself can actually, to the surprise of many, be traced back several centuries.

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual,” Aristotle once said.

Aristotle, a profound Greek philosopher who advocated for the manifestation of mankind’s inherently social nature, has noted that it's not instinctively natural for human beings to live as separate entities.

Furthermore, actions such as physical affection are responsible for characterizing the very dynamics of humanity’s ability to feel, encourage and communicate.

But when a deadly virus runs rampant in the streets, gestures as simple as shaking hands can accomplish far more than self-gratification and fruitful relationships; they are capable of killing you.

The most significant problem with these findings is that they literally go head-to-head with society’s current solution to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Publicly identified by the CDC as a disease that is spread through person-to-person contact, the novel coronavirus has done far more damage than simply altering the normalcy of society. It has complicated matters by eliminating the one practice proven to aid individuals struggling with mental health issues: social interaction.

For many individuals across the nation, the social distancing order gives them the opportunity to rest, relax and embrace the simple things in life. But for those with anxiety or affiliated mental health disorders, this code of caution feels more like a form of house arrest than a state of refuge. (Photo courtesy of Alejandro Gumera.)

Given the situation at hand, a common question circulating the scientific community is currently being addressed by many: How should psychologists and mental health professionals aid their patients in responding to COVID-19?

If they allow their patients to physically engage with friends and family, they increase their patient’s chances of contracting the virus. If they deny their patients the socialization many of them require, there is a risk that their mental health could deteriorate even further.

It seems like their hands are tied...or are they?

Like many of his fellow professionals, psychologist Craig Kerns is helping his current patients devise new ways to cope with their pandemic-related stress.

Of these methods, Kerns believes one of the most crucial practices is for his patients to keep in mind the one thing they still have control over their schedule.

Maintain your regular schedule as much as possible,” Kerns said. “Some of our normal activities, such as exercise and socializing, will probably look different from what we are used to doing, but there are alternative ways to meet these needs.”

This is where the concepts of social distancing come into play. Even though physical interaction is impossible at this point, 21st century technology allows individuals to still maintain communication.

Media platforms such as Facebook and Zoom have made it possible for therapists and family members to stay in contact with their patients. And when Wi-Fi falls prone to failure? There's nothing to stop an old-fashioned phone call.

Bottom line: All hope is not lost. Individuals with anxiety, though they may be suffering more than the average individual right now, do have avenues they can take to deal with their provoked symptoms.

By Brenna Brown

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