Susan R. Madsen: When worry becomes a web of anxiety and depression

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Frank Young leads a fitness class at Liberty Park, Saturday, May 23, 2020.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I have thought more about issues of mental and emotional wellness over the past few weeks than I have at any point in my life. Understandably, in Utah and around the globe, mental health issues are on the rise.

We are living in a pandemic with a novel virus for which there is no rulebook. This creates uncertainty. And so we worry. We worry that we might get sick. We worry because our employment is precarious or non-existent. We worry for our family, that our kids are falling behind in school or that our parents are at such high risk. We worry about many different things.

Worry is not a problem on it’s own. It’s normal to worry. But for some of us, worry weaves its way into a web of anxiety and depression. And few of us are equipped for the kind of isolation and stress that corona has brought.

Recent studies reveal that as unemployment goes up, so does the use of opioids and alcohol. Unemployment rates also correlate with domestic violence. In April, Utah County dispatch reported a 75% increase in domestic violence calls to 911, most of which is gender-based.

Even as restrictions are loosened around the state, we are not out of the woods. So we need to develop some coping strategies that can help us offset the impact of isolation and/or being too close for comfort. Here are a few of the tools my team and family have found helpful:

  • Get outside. Everyday. Feel the sun on your face. Aside from the Vitamin D and psychological boost it will give you, it can lessen anxiety about the virus. Less than .03% of traced infections occurred outdoors when people socially distanced.

  • Find a way to serve and connect. For me, nothing gets me feeling good about myself and my situation like helping others. Check on neighbors via porch visits; call someone who lives alone or might be struggling; visit websites like Volunteer Match and Just Serve that offer virtual service opportunities.

  • Exercise. Aside from all the good stuff it does for your physical health, exercise is wonderful mental health too. It can reduce stress, anxiety, ADHD, and improve your sleep. Get out and walk, ride your bike, or hike.

  • Practice self-compassion. Give yourself permission to let go of some of your expectations. You may find you have more time on your hands but are less productive. Or you feel guilty because you know your situation could be worse. Acknowledge your emotions and accept whatever you can do as “good enough,” at least for now.

  • Talk about your worries. When we share our concerns with others, we learn we are not alone. Some of our troubles will evaporate as we talk, and some can only be solved with professional intervention. That’s ok. There are people and resources to help us cope with our problems, large and small.

There is no “Dummies Guide to a Pandemic” or “Corona 101” to guide us through this crisis. But I take comfort in the global solidarity, that as nations either succeed or stumble, we are learning from each other, rooting for each other. We are not alone.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership & Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.