For people who were already dealing with anxiety disorders before the pandemic, the past 10 months have been especially challenging. “Some of my clients’ symptoms from anxiety have increased significantly, not only from Generalized Anxiety Disorder but they’re also dealing with COVID anxiety, which is a separate entity in itself,” Beecroft says. “Thought patterns and cognitive distortions like black-and-white thinking and catastrophizing are at an all-time high.”
Plenty of people are also experiencing severe anxiety for the first time. “We’re living in a state of prolonged stress, and burnout is a reaction to living in that state for so long,” says Beecroft. Many of us are feeling exhausted and cynical, and have trouble getting the smallest tasks done because we are so taxed. Signs of a developing anxiety disorder can mean shutting down, entering into “a state of disassociation, hyperventilation, or paralysis in an effort to avoid the situation,” Musselman says. “It feels uncontrollable and likely causes shortness of breath, a racing heart, restlessness, inability to sleep and racing thoughts, nightmares, difficulty focusing or excessively worrying.”
Symptoms of an anxiety disorder can vary from person to person, but they’re all rooted in fear of the future—something that’s felt especially heavy this year. For people like me, it can become a way of being, like a soundtrack that keeps playing in the background on low volume.
The anxiety zeitgeist
As much as social media has played a part in normalizing mental health language, it’s also led to rampant misuse of the mental health terminology. “In today’s social-media-infused world, the term ‘anxiety’ means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” says Beecroft. “We’re still fighting a stigma that surrounds mental health, but using these terms in a trendy or romanticizing way can do more harm than help.” She’s seen countless memes on social media in which people exaggerate their everyday experiences and use psychotherapy terms that aren’t always appropriate. “People often equate having nerves about an upcoming test with ‘having bad anxiety,’” she says. “Or when they’re going to a party where they don’t know anyone, they have ‘social anxiety.’ Butterflies in your stomach are the new panic attack.”
Some of these things have helped me feel seen in my experience and therefore less alone and less afraid to talk about getting treatment. But sometimes I think we’ve gone too far—Instagram is no replacement for therapy or medication. Overgeneralizing anxiety can make it harder for people to know when they should seek treatment.
For me, seeing so many people talk about their mental health issues and treatment has been powerful—a welcome reminder I’m not alone. But when I see posts about “anxiety” from people who might not actually have a mental health disorder, sometimes it makes me feel like my condition isn’t being taken seriously. “It’s really important that people use the term ‘anxiety’ with the understanding of what it means,” says Beecroft. That way, we can really further the conversation on mental health—a new “normal” we can all get behind.
When to seek help
Whether you think you have an anxiety disorder, or are just feeling burnt out by the realities of existing right now, it’s appropriate to call in a pro. “Seeking out therapy is something people can do at any stage,” Beecroft says. “It’s just another form of self-care, and right now every single one of us needs to prioritize self-care.” Therapy can be preventive and help you develop tools to live the life they want, which might have become more challenging during the pandemic.
If you notice your anxiety is seriously impacting your lifestyle and you’re struggling with motivation or having trouble showing up in your personal or professional life, Beecroft says it’s definitely a good idea to find a therapist.
Sara Radin is a writer and editor based in New York, covering culture, identity, and mental health. Follow her @sararradin.