ColumnsThe Seeker

The Seeker: Confronting Anxiety in a Quarantine

According to Dr. Amy Fletcher at Thrive, a health and wellness center in SouthPark, the most recent research suggests that one in four women regularly deal with stress and anxiety, and because I align with the quartile that suffers from those maladies, Fletcher’s recent Facebook Live webinar “Stress, Cortisol and Hormones” proved timely and relatable.

In the time of a global pandemic that has everyone not only worried about germs but whether they can count on their next paycheck, I imagine it was timely and relatable for plenty of other folks, as well.

While my anxiety is usually triggered by social situations (being asked a question I may not know the answer to in a board meeting propels my heart rate towards cardio) it has still managed to spark a perpetual curiosity around symptom relief — besides Xanax and avoiding board meetings. So what other accessible, healthy options are out there for people like me who walk around trying to suppress the mental shitshow that is our inner dialogue?

Firstly, I would be remiss not to begin by addressing the general anxiety that COVID-19 has inflamed. This type of fear around not just the outbreak itself, but about how our children are going to continue their education, whether or not we will remain securely employed, how long it will take some of us to receive our stimulus payment now that the IRS has delayed the process to print Trump’s name on each check; it’s all very disquieting.

Throughout the webinar, Dr. Fletcher explained that an increasing amount of women are reporting that they are under moderate to severe stress, myself included. Unfortunately, I learned the obesity epidemic runs parallel to chronic issues like stress, since cortisol, the stress response hormone that regulates biological processes like metabolism and the immune response, leads to weight gain. Stress apparently is a lead driver for inflammation in the body, so combating it through healthy modalities is key.

According to Integrative Therapeutics, “the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis is our central stress response system. The HPA axis is an eloquent and ever-dynamic intertwining of the central nervous system and endocrine system.” This biological stress response is a system designed to help us mobilize energy and escape dangers, but the types of dangers our ancestors faced are likely very different from what you and I experience today.

The part of our limbic system that releases the vexatious cortisol is the amygdala. Not only does it perform a primary role around fear, anxiety and aggression, it also is a key component of processing memory, decision-making and emotional responses, the all-too-familiar fight-or-flight response. To summarize, it’s what provokes us to run away from stressful events like getting attacked by a tiger, or being invited to a board meeting. As I write this I can’t help but wonder why my evolution in this area feels a bit delayed.

While the chemical reactions that happen inside of the human body are cool from a scientific perspective, anxiety is not cool … ever. And the trickle-down stress effects from societal issues — work/life boundaries, gender inequities, racial injustices, and now COVID-19 — are even more afflictive toward our already-fragile mental state.

According to Benenden Health, “We live in a world that is obsessed with technology.” On average we check our phones 85 times a day. This obsession of being “always on” leaves us depleted, a sentiment I identify with closely.

Throughout the webinar, Dr. Fletcher seamlessly weaved the theme of “rest and restoration” into her lecture. Listening to the body is crucial in times like this and the importance of sleep, healthy diet and exercise are key to combating physical and mental fatigue.

Gone are the days (temporarily, I hope) when I can pop into any yoga studio. So what’s a girl to do during these precarious times when stress is abundant but ventures beyond our property threshold are limited? How do we maintain our health or work towards reclaiming it?

Many medical professionals including Dr. Fletcher have suggested that we use this period of time affluence (when we feel we have sufficient time to pursue activities that are meaningful to reflect, or engage in leisurely activities) to be health conscious. By recognizing stressors we can modulate high cortisol response through counteractive modalities: Try a new recipe, go for a walk, experiment in the kitchen.

As a self-proclaimed “worker bee” without a medical background but an affinity for health and wellness, I am learning to appreciate this type of complimentary social outreach by medical providers. My hope is that it will not only help soothe our anxieties but also strengthen our sense of community. In a world gone virtual, I’ll take gratuitous medical advice when available, but I’m certainly not ready to relinquish my Xanax supply.

Be sure to check out Katie’s other columns here

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