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Mental health experts offer insights on how to overcome anxiety

Some of the University’s top mental health experts offer tips for curbing those anxious feelings that many are harboring while dealing with the longevity and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mental Health

Be flexible. Stay calm. Bear with us.

After two years of adapting to policy changes at work, in schools, in travel, and literally everywhere in society, many people are at their breaking point. They are frustrated, less patient, and tired of the logistical land mines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Should I always wear a mask? What kind of mask? Is it acceptable to hug my friends yet? Are my children safe? Can I visit my elderly parent or relatives?

These types of questions are fueling anxiety for many. The lesser known, but all too common, mental health pandemic is affecting more people than statistics can capture. Toward the start of 2022—at the height of the omicron surge—the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that just more than 40 percent of adults between 18 and 29 were experiencing symptoms of anxiety. And the latest Household Pulse Survey shows that more than 30 percent of adults between the ages of 30 and 49 also indicated they were feeling anxious.

“The sense of insecurity about this moment is acute,” said psychology professor Jill Ehrenreich-May, who also directs the Child and Adolescent Mood and Anxiety Treatment Program at the University of Miami.

Rene Monteagudo, director of the Counseling Center, said anxiety has been the number one issue affecting students nationally for a decade, but the pandemic has driven up case numbers.

However, the University of Miami’s mental health experts say there are ways to rise above the cycle of stress and anxiety sparked by this uncertainty. And there are ways to help others.  

Orlando Gonzalez is the director of the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, as well as a licensed mental health counselor and certified employee assistance professional. Viviana Horigian is a professor of public health at the Miller School of Medicine and a trained psychiatrist who studies depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, with a particular interest in how adolescents will fare during the pandemic.

All four experts offer tips to remind us how to conquer anxiety.

Don’t lose track of typical well-being practices, like sleep, nutrition, and exercise.

All the experts concur that the easiest ways to prevent one’s mental health from deteriorating are to never neglect your own well-being and self-care and to maintain daily routines. This can also help people protect themselves from falling into a situation of burnout, according to Horigian.

“Make sure you are keeping up your regular sleep patterns and that you are still eating nutritious foods and keeping up with your exercise habits,” she added. “In addition, self-compassion, self-reflection, meditation, and mindfulness are also important.”

Make time to connect with friends

Horigian, who studies loneliness, found that making time for meaningful connections with family and friends is extremely important for mental health, particularly among youth. And Ehrenreich-May pointed out that this extends to adults and parents too, who are also suffering from isolation and loneliness.

“If you’re feeling lonely, reach out to a friend, even if it’s just on the phone. It may not be as satisfying as an in-person conversation, but it helps,” Ehrenreich-May said.

Monteagudo added: “Find someone you can talk to. It doesn’t always have to be with a professional therapist, but sharing your struggles with someone really does help.” 

Maintain boundaries between your work and home life as much as possible.

A shift to remote work has led to a blurring of lines between work and home life that has hindered the mental health of many and led some people to experience burnout. Symptoms of burnout often overlap with signs of anxiety such as trouble sleeping, irritability, feeling overwhelmed, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, as well as a loss of motivation and pleasure for things that were fun in the past.

To avoid burnout, Horigian suggested that people maintain a separation between work and home life. “The importance of protecting those boundaries for self-preservation is crucial,” she added.

If a situation is irritating you, take a step back.

There are certain strategies—like imagining your thoughts as leaves on a stream—that psychologists can suggest to help people dealing with anxiety or frustration, but most force you to stop and consider (or reconsider) your thoughts, Ehrenreich-May said. That might also mean a trip to the bathroom or a walk around the block to clear your head.

Offer a sense of structure at home, school, or work. This is important for children, students, and employees because it can help reduce anxiety.

All humans, regardless of age, often imagine worst-case scenarios when they receive no guidance about the future. Therefore, Gonzalez said that leaders like parents, managers, and faculty members can help safeguard the mental health of their children, students, or employees by coming up with a plan of action that will offer everyone a sense of direction.

“There are a lot of question marks in people’s minds today. If you’re able to develop a plan, you’re filling in some of those gaps, so they don’t have to worry as much about next steps,” he added. “Managers can support employees by offering structure and guidance about where the department is headed, even if they may not know the final outcome. They can also reassure people of their worth and their place in the plan. That helps people feel they are part of the equation and provides them with a sense of hope, grounding, and stability.”

Focus on the things you can control.

Take inventory of the things you have influence over at work or in your personal life. Then, stay focused on what you can do independently. This gives you a greater sense of control, and you can get more done, Gonzalez said.

“We all need to recognize that uncertainty will always exist and it’s not a bad thing that we aren’t in control of everything,” he added. “When we acknowledge and accept this fact, we start to let go of the need to attempt control over the uncontrollable or have everything in absolute order.”

Check in with others who may be struggling.

If you encounter someone you are concerned about, check in with them, and make sure they are ok, Monteagudo suggested.

“People will often provide clues that something is not right or if they need help discussing something that is weighing on them,” he said. “Listen to what is being said through their verbal and non-verbal communication styles.”

And if a friend, student, or colleague needs more help than you can offer by listening, refer students to the Counseling Center, where they can meet with a therapist. Faculty or staff members may arrange a consultation visit with a counselor from the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program.

In addition, Kognito offers students and faculty and staff members training about how to recognize someone in distress and direct them to the best resources. And the UMindfulness program offers trainings throughout the year in mindful practices.